Christina Shea Smuggled
Crisply written and meticulously put-together, Christina Shea’s Smuggled offers vivid insight into nearly fifty years of contentious history along the Romanian-Hungarian border. The novel begins in the midst of Word War II, with Éva Farkas, a five-year old Jewish girl being smuggled across the border to Romania to flee the Nazis. Once there, Eva takes on a new name, Anca, and Shea follows the girl as she grows into womanhood, struggling to adopt to a new country, a strange language, and an increasingly uncertain sense of her own identity.
Éva’s struggles clearly parallel a tumultuous half century in Eastern Europe in general, and, more specifically, the Transylvania region that’s passed back and forth between Romania and Hungary. Shea’s novel encompasses that history, but she’s careful not to let it overwhelm her story. The author manages place and time adroitly, capturing both the beauty and grimness of the Romanian countryside, along with the marks decades of Communism left on that landscape.
Still, while Shea has a clear sense of this region—she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Hungary—her protagonist often seems disconnected, even alienated from the changing world around her. At first the effect is disconcerting; Smuggled is set up as an identity quest, with Éva returning to Hungary at the novel’s end to reclaim her name and ostensibly her identity. Thankfully, the novel is more complex than its copy. Éva’s been deeply traumatized by the events of her life, being torn away from her family, her home, and all the markers of her self. In response to that trauma, she withdraws further into herself, struggling to connect with the people and places around her, and Shea mimics this withdrawal through spare, carefully sculpted language. What at first feels like a failure of characterization becomes an increasingly potent invocation of a character who’s become, for all intents and purposes, a stranger to herself. By the novel’s end, Éva’s just beginning to open up to the people she cares about, and the slow, tentative nature of that process reflects the damage the world’s done to her just as powerfully as it does her ability to come to terms with that world.