• Christina Shea
  • Black Cat, Grove/Atlantic
  • 294 pp.

A lyrical and absorbing novel of a young girl’s assumed identity, and its psychological effects, in Communist Romania.

Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy

In the winter of 1943, at 5 years old, Eva Farkas is smuggled in a flour sack over the Hungarian border into Romania. She is taken in by an aunt and uncle and given the new name Anca Balaj. She must forget her Hungarian past, her Jewish identity and her language. Her safety depends on it. In poetic and emotionally restrained language, Christina Shea writes about Communist Romania and the impoverishment and climate of fear that characterize Anca’s new world. Smuggled takes us through Anca’s college years and adulthood, ending in 1990 with her return to Hungary.

Shea’s evocative language is evident in the very first sentence: “They would slip her between the seams of the two countries.” The writing is lyrical, controlled and especially strong on physical detail and setting. But the spare declarative sentences serve character development less effectively. Don’t expect to learn how it feels to have a double life, or to gain insight into the psychological effects on Anca when close relatives inform on each other in order to save themselves.

The characterization is further impeded because the narrative preoccupations of Smuggled are at odds with the values and passions of the characters. Anca is a champion tennis and ping-pong player. We are told she is training heavily, that “ping-pong is her Zionism” and that her tennis team status insulates her, but we never feel it — and hardly ever see it. We don’t meet any other tennis players. Maybe we don’t want to, but as a result, we never really know Anca. Instead, we get beautiful descriptions of the library where she studies, and of Eastern European life during the Cold War.

There are also several implausible plot points, which pull you out of the fictive dream. When Anca goes to college, she encounters a Hungarian boy she knew when she was 5. She not only recognizes his name but also discloses her identity and begins a love affair with him. And as he himself observes, her sudden proficiency in her native Hungarian is equally implausible — even if she speaks it like a peasant.  Language development and cultural identification are far more complex than this (I speak from the experience of raising children in different countries, speaking several different languages). The likelihood that Anca would retain Hungarian language is slim to none, particularly given that she is forbidden to speak it in her new life.

Anca’s recognition and trust of this boy seem even less plausible since the details about her mother are hard to remember, “ghost like images, pressing the surface — nothing definite.”

This inconsistency is evident again when Anca is reacquainted with Aron Messer, a Communist League official who earlier in the book interrogates her in the university. Anca finds it disorientating to see him in a new setting and to recall his arrogance, but we don’t get any of her discomfort or distrust firsthand. An important conversation about Aron’s Communist affiliations is mentioned only in passing, but not explored in scene. Instead, we get descriptions of their weekend hunting trip and budding romance. There is little or no psychological baggage, and less complexity in their interactions than circumstances warrant. Had these been explored, it would have made for a fascinating read.

One interesting issue that Shea does not sugarcoat, however, is Eva’s anti-Semitism. She gives it to us straight, and the self-loathing and denial here lend a dark authenticity. More of this in other areas would have gone far.

The final section of the book begins in 1990. Here the voice shifts from third-person past to third-person present, perhaps symbolizing a shift in perspective. Anca goes back to being Eva. Here Shea again demonstrates her mastery of physical description and realistic detail, but sometimes lapses into falsely lyrical and even sentimental shortcuts with her characters.

But for all its inconsistencies, Smuggled is ultimately an engaging read. It plunged me into another world, and that’s what you want from a good book. Smuggled is Christina Shea’s second novel. I look forward to reading her third.

Amanda Holmes Duffy, who teaches writing at Northern Virginia Community College, has edited art listings for “Goings On” in The New Yorker and published stories, under Amanda Holmes, in Ploughshares, Rattapallax, Moxie, Sunday Express and on the Ether Books app for download to iPhone. “Russian Music Lessons,” a nonfiction piece, is in the latest issue of The Northern Virginia Review.

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