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BOOK REVIEW

‘Smuggled’ a tale of perseverance by any name

By S. Kirk Walsh
July 14, 2011

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‘They would slip her between the seams of the two countries,’’ begins Christina Shea’s second stirring novel, “Smuggled.’’ The two countries are Hungary and Romania in 1943, toward the end of World War II. The individual being secretly transported across the border is 5-year-old Éva Farkas, who believes that this clandestine act of being stowed away in a flour sack has something to do with her recently injured left hand. A temporary arrangement of sorts, she thinks. And after the war, she will be returned to her mother. Instead, Éva arrives in Crisu, a small village located in Transylvania, Romania, and learns that she will be living with her father’s sister, Kati, and her husband, Ilie. Her aunt gives her a new identity of Anca Balaj and insists on speaking only Romanian to the child. For two months, Éva isn’t allowed to step foot outside of their farmhouse because of the fear that others might identify her as a Hungarian Jew.

“The numbness and shock gave way in her sleep, and she could see her mother’s pretty face, yearning it into being,’’ writes Shea from Éva’s perspective early in the novel. “She was wrapped in Mama’s warm arms, her cheek pillowed against her bosom, the worn fabric of her blouse, the fading cherry bouquets. At the first signs of morning consciousness, she held her mother tightly, with two good hands, never letting go. Still, when she opened her eyes in the morning, Mama wasn’t there.’’

Before long, Éva begins to understand to a certain degree the reality of her new situation. And so commences the transformation of Éva into Anca. The narrative follows this tenacious protagonist through 50 years of her harrowing, yet resilient, life and the devastating historical periods of Communism, the Holocaust, and the oppression of Nicolae Ceausescu, the cruel secretary general of the Romanian Communist Party. Through Shea’s elegant, pared-down prose, the reader is given a firsthand glimpse of these ongoing atrocities through the intimate lens of one woman’s experience as she endures countless traumas - the suicides and deaths of family and friends, brutal rapes, relentless deprivation.

When Anca is 17, she befriends the local pharmacist, Simona Ursa (nicknamed by the villagers “Miss Pharmacist’’), a young woman who teaches and encourages Anca to play tennis and shares coveted sugar cubes with her. Because of a tragic turn of events, Miss Pharmacist passes away unexpectedly. After Anca hears this disturbing news, she discovers a dried-up well in an old orchard, clutching the tennis ball that she meant to return to her deceased friend. “Anca stared into the dank blackness and after a moment let go of the tennis ball, dropping it down. The ball echoed as it bounced for a few seconds and then it was silent. She bit her lip. ‘Come back,’ she called into the dark. ‘Please come back!’ Her heart soaring and sinking all at once in her own disembodied reply.’’

Despite her numerous losses, Anca continues to press onward, depending on her innate skills - a faculty for other languages and an athletic prowess - in order to navigate her ever-changing circumstances. Unfortunately, she must also rely on her beauty and sexuality, and ends up giving herself over to several lovers (some sympathetic, others heartless) in order to survive. Given all of this personal devastation, it’s not surprising that a measure of emotional detachment permeates much of the narrative. At certain points, Anca must restrain how much she cares about others in order to persevere and eventually circle back to her distant past.

In contrast to the expansive novels characteristic of the historical literary genre, Shea takes a significant slice of history and adroitly contains it into a tight, intimate story, where Éva/Anca collects bits and pieces of her shattered self, and stitches together a life of new possibility and humanity.

S. Kirk Walsh, a fiction writer in Austin, Texas, can be reached at skirk.walsh@gmail.com.

SMUGGLED

By Christina Shea

Grove, 256 pp., paperback, $14