Review: Smuggled, by Christina Shea
A child smuggled across a border during the Second World War and growing up under an invasive and dictatorial regime; love and loss; drudgery and luxury; bear-hunting parties in the Carpathians; and a happy ending: this book has all the elements of an engaging read despite its serious historical setting.
But it lacks the style to carry through its promises, with an interesting plot hampered by a few too many clichés, an overly didactic approach to setting the background, and a central protagonist in need of character development.
Éva Farkas, five years old and born of a Jewish Hungarian mother, is smuggled to relatives across the border to Romania in 1943, as the restrictions surrounding Jews in her native country tighten up. Renamed Anca and equipped with false papers, she starts a new life in a new country, one increasingly pervaded by the shadows of the new communist regime. Through Éva/Anca’s lifelong struggle to grapple with her loss of identity and lack of belonging, the book draws a compelling story of the bleak hopes and blighted lives of the many people who happened to find themselves living in the murky times of the war and its aftermath in Eastern Europe.
Over 300 pages spanning 50 years, Éva/Anca’s history mirrors the drama of war, the increasing isolation and corruption of Romanian society, and the sheer drudgery of survival in an environment where deprivation and informing are ubiquitous. Amid a plethora of characters, some grim, some well-intentioned, some who only endure “with a narrow mind and little tolerance for messy emotion”, Anca grows and negotiates her way through school, university, a successful sports career, work, relationships and motherhood. Her Hungarian origins and her false papers are at once a constant threat to her own safety and, like the rare occasions when the radio can be tuned to the BBC, “proof of another reality” beyond the indoctrination of daily life.
True to life
Christina Shea spent two years working in Szeged after 1990, during which she heard many personal life stories and formed countless impressions, which help to create nice, true-sounding touches throughout the book. The author’s personal experiences are certainly put to good use in the last part, describing a hardened Anca returning to Szeged after the fall of communism, to reclaim her identity and come to terms with her past.
Entering Hungary, the happy barracks, in the unbridled years after the change of regime, feels like “rapidly coming up for air”, when even a colourful Coca-Cola bag at one dollar a piece, or a single golden banana, is a temptation.
The many foreigners who pass through the city in search of their own past or of new discoveries, only make more visible the tremendous gap between people who lived under communism and those coming from the comfortable, free world of the West, and how difficult it is to find the words to convey the differences.
The novel is an easy read and there are plenty of elements that will appeal to people wanting to get a feel for what it was like to live under communism in Romania. But the fictionalised character’s existence that has been spun out of these elements fails to fulfil the expectations raised by the plot summary.
Style and structure
The writer’s matter-of-fact style is at fault, and so is the book’s construction, compress-ing 50 years into 300 pages through a series of glimpses of Éva/Anca’s life. These follow each other with greater or lesser intervals of time, and there are enough markers dotted throughout the book to be able to follow the heroine’s life. But the sometimes very swift pace often ends up straining credulity: in one instance, in 20 pages covering eight years of her life, the heroine has, and loses, two babies and their father, gets married to another man, recovers the long-estranged uncle who played a pivotal role in her youth, and loses him in a car accident.
One could also wish for a more credible, or at least likable, heroine. As a child, Anca can be pitied, but she appears throughout the book as a simple pawn to life’s circumstances, a shallow character that lacks in substance and in emotional response to the challenges she is forced to confront. By the time she returns to Hungary, it is as a tough and practical but seemingly unfeeling person, which makes only more implausible the complete turn-around in her own character and in the story’s unraveling at the end of the book.
Buy the book
By Christina Shea
Paperback, 304 pages
Black Cat, 2011