SMUGGLED by Christina Shea

Book Quote:

“Then slowly she reaches out, gathering up the hen, and delivers a soft kiss. She tosses the bird up after the others. Craning her neck, envious of their flight. They disappear from sight. All life evaporated, a blank sky.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate (AUG 14, 2011)

This is Éva Farkas, a Hungarian Jew, releasing a homing pigeon in the bleak courtyard at Auschwitz sometime in the early 1990s. Smuggled out of Hungary at the age of five, she has survived by living under an assumed name (Anca) in Romania, survived years of Communist oppression, years of “peeping between her fingers,” always in fear of denunciation, paying for accomodation with access to her body. Now, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, she has come home again to reclaim her old identity and embark on a life too long postponed.


I can see that this will be a great success with people who read fiction as proxy fact or with book clubs. There is the intrinsic interest of the background history, though you may need to look to other sources to check the conditions in Eastern European countries under the Axis and the various phases of Communist rule in Romania. I can see people approaching Éva/Anca as a real person and entering into a kind of horrified sympathy at the things she needs to do in order to survive. At one point, for example, she concedes sexual favors to an editor who gives her work as a technical translator; by this time, she speaks four languages. But he will not assign her a more literary text. Perhaps he is just being mean, but she also admits a ring of truth: “The crux of it was that she did not really possess a native tongue.” An Amazon reviewer who described the book as “a woman’s search for identity” had it right.

It is a difficult premise, however, to write a novel on the basis of the protagonist’s loss of identity. To really feel this woman’s search for identity, you need a strong sense of something in there demanding to be set free. Éva/Anca is never unbelievable, but she is seldom more than a reflector of the conditions around her. Shea’s writing is never bad, but it is often perfunctory. We move through four decades in two hundred pages; one thing happens, then another; we are shocked by this, momentarily inspired by that, but by then we have moved on to something else. Any empathy with Éva/Anca comes from the feelings that WE fill her with; we are seldom swept away by emotions welling up from inside her. The story seems to occupy the past tense, rather than recreating history in the immediate PRESENT. Compared to Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums, Shea’s Romanian nightmare has no immediacy at all. Or if comparison to a Nobelist seems unfair, look at Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge (the Holocaust and after in Hungary) or the first half of Rana Dasgupta’s Solo (Communist Bulgaria), both of which, despite their flaws, convey the reality of political oppression in ways that Christina Shea can barely touch.

Yet, I have to say that the last ninety pages of the book make up for a lot of the missed opportunities earlier. Time moves much more slowly, and we have time to see Éva settle in a new place, make new friends, take up new causes. She becomes interested in an albino boy, Levente, in the same apartment block who is savagely beaten by his mother. She becomes friends with an American neighbor who keeps homing pigeons:

“If you let her go, she will come back?” Levente asked.
“Why will she come back?”
“She wants to.”

Éva’s mother did not come back from that train journey, but the pigeon does, bleeding, exhausted, but still alive. Perhaps that is all we should demand.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 11 readers
PUBLISHER: Grove Press, Black Cat; Original edition (July 5, 2011)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Interview with Christina Shea
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:


August 14, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Reading Guide, Romania, World Lit

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.