DAUGHTERS OF THE AIR
by Anca L. Szilágyi
Lanternfish Press, 184 pages
reviewed by Leena Soman
Tatiana is supposed to spend the summer before her junior year in high school in Vermont with her only friend while her mother summers in Rome. Instead, she hitches a ride from her boarding school’s Connecticut campus to Brooklyn. It’s 1980, and Tatiana renames herself Pluta, an alter ego she has long cultivated to meet the demands of this adventure. So begins Anca L. Szilágyi’s debut novel Daughters of the Air.
It’s worth pausing a moment to admire the book’s unique cover. Szilágyi selected an image by artist Nichole Dement who is interested in contemporary myth, a fitting synergy with the author. The image, called Bird Moon, is one of several haunting pieces in the artist’s Oracle series, and the frenzy of human form and nature in muted tones is nothing short of striking. This beautiful cover art demonstrates a thoughtfulness and sophistication that carries through to the story.
The book’s chapters alternate between Pluta’s present circumstances as a runaway in New York, and the previous two years leading to her arrival in the United States from Argentina. In 1978, Pluta’s father, Daniel, a sociology professor in Buenos Aires, leaves for work at the university and never returns. Many novelists, Argentine and otherwise, have revisited this awful period of recent history known as the Dirty War. Szilágyi, whose family arrived in the United States as immigrants and refugees from Romania, began developing the novel when she noticed some alarming similarities between the rhetoric of the U.S.’s War on Terror in the early 2000s and Argentina’s Dirty War. She doesn’t investigate the specific political movements and cultural complexities in Argentina during that era as much as she homes in on Pluta’s coming of age in the context of this turmoil and the personal isolation that can result from ceaseless questions that defy answers.
Pluta’s mother, Isabel, tries to find her husband, but it is relatively soon after the guerrillas have been defeated and the worst of state repression has begun. To ask too many questions, to publicly make too much of what has happened, would be unwise. Isabel and Pluta flee to Isabel’s estranged older sister, Lolo, who lives in Manaus, Brazil, and then to the United States, where Pluta will attend boarding school. But her father’s disappearance weighs on her, and after two years without solace, she decides to start a new life with a new identity. Szilágyi writes,
Now there was only the specter of that other certainty. Not yet proven but lurking, a lugubrious hobglobin crouching heavy and low upon her insides, seeping dark juices, ready at any moment to spring: he wasn’t ever coming back […] There could be anywhere. There was away. She needed there; here was closed in, too falsely safe, too hiding of truth. For now, there was New York, sprawling and alive, big as Buenos Aires—bigger—a place to run and burst and be, unenclosed.
In Pluta, Szilágyi has created a character with ample charisma and contradiction to carry the story. She is naïve, thoughtful, and daring. While we have access to her internal landscape through rich, lyrical description of what she’s thinking and feeling, she is active, constantly on the move, and her actions, as she wanders Gowanus mostly, often have consequences she can’t anticipate. Though bright, Pluta isn’t endowed with trope-like precociousness, which is refreshing. “‘What’s that?’” Pluta asks when her ride into the city tells her he’s an entrepreneur. Szilágyi writes, “She knew the word, but sometimes she liked to play dumb; it seemed like a tricky thing to do. Some people liked to explain things. This saved her from talking. Her father liked to explain things, but he wouldn’t have liked her to play dumb.” This moment, like so many others, perfectly establishes her intelligence and inexperience, as well as the degree to which her father’s absence is fully present in her life.
In telling this story, Szilágyi grapples with the challenge of dramatizing loneliness. Pluta and Isabel spend a great deal of time alone. For most of the novel, they are in exile, and Szilágyi has to reconcile presenting the unspeakable pain of this experience with the literary craft of creating dramatic tension between and among characters. Pluta had been closer to her father and, even before his disappearance Isabel struggled to connect with her awkward, moody daughter. Once he’s gone, mother and daughter each cope with Daniel’s vanishing in isolation. Pluta’s aunt Lolo is the novel’s most compelling character, and the story is at its most stirring when Isabel and Pluta are with her, partly because the characters’ interactions reverberate with tension and conflict. Lolo is eleven years older than Isabel and her foil, a warm, maternal presence. She communes with the spirit world, especially her dead husband, forty-four years her senior and many decades gone. Isabel, conservative and preoccupied with appearances, disdains her sister’s eccentricity, but cannot deny Lolo’s affection for her daughter. With the rich family history Szilágyi has developed for her characters, and her nuanced rendering of varied communities across Argentina and Brazil, this trio of women has greater potential than the novel allows them.
In New York, Szilágyi focuses on Pluta’s encounters with three men: Bobby, the young man who initially provides her with a ride out of Connecticut and a place to stay in Brooklyn, an older man named Leonard, and an unnamed man with red hair and freckles. Szilágyi creates suspense as Pluta pinballs among them, and it is gripping to read about a young girl in 1980s New York, no smartphone in hand, and how a clever and reckless child might find herself making do.
Indeed, one of the most fascinating parts of the story is Szilágyi’s inclusion of fairytale elements to magnify and probe the surreal quality of Pluta’s young life. In Manaus, Lolo takes Pluta to the opera where she sees the story of Orpheus performed on stage. The author was born in Queens and raised in Brooklyn, and extends the notion of a secret underworld in describing early 1980s Gowanus. If anything, this impulse for contemporary mythmaking could have been mined for even greater effect and might have helped to solve the problem of building organic relationships between characters in a story about silences and isolation. For instance, one of the first things Pluta does with her independence in New York is get a tattoo. She does not have enough money to get the full ink she’d like, and the artist would prefer to stage the process out given the scale of the drawing she wants anyway, so he starts with only an outline of the image she requests. “The needle frightened her, but she wanted to defy that fright,” Szilágyi writes. “In some sense she saw it as training. She was becoming courageous, sometimes even scaring herself with this business of courage and defiance, which made her laugh. Following rules had stopped working. She would do whatever she wanted. That’s what felt right.” This arc proves to be pivotal, and later, when something remarkable happens with the tattoo, it never occurs to Pluta to return to the artist as someone who might be able to offer her counsel or at least recognize her in a city of strangers. It seems a missed opportunity to establish more grounding relationships and create the type of character interactions that enrich a story and propel it forward organically. Pluta does reconnect with Bobby, thankfully, but it is by chance, and his presence in her life begins as arbitrarily as the others she encounters.
At the book’s climax, Pluta commits a crime. For some reason, Szilágyi chooses to not resolve this subplot, a decision I found frustrating considering the severity of the incident. The author could have easily disposed of the inconvenience of working through a crime investigation and the emotional impacts of the act on Pluta if she didn’t want to address it outright by referring to how a police investigation might have ended differently in early 1980s New York or given it a supernatural treatment in keeping with the magical realism in Daughters of the Air, but doesn’t bother. This decision amplifies the theme of unresolved endings, of having to somehow reconcile with unyielding uncertainty, but feels unsatisfying. Other aspects of the book’s conclusion are harrowing, but certainly more satisfying, demonstrating the author’s skillful control.
Toward the end of the novel, we see Isabel in the story’s present, but like Pluta, she is lonely and mainly alone. The only people she interacts with are a shoe salesman in Rome, the principal of the boarding school, and a private detective and his assistant. By making Isabel closed off to talking about what has happened to her family, we too are closed off from a layered understanding of her relationship with her husband and from feeling the loss of Daniel from her perspective. This is the bind of the novel—as a reader we need more, but part of the ambition of the story is that we must do without it.
Isabel and Pluta’s isolation get to the heart of what’s driving this novel: the many shames of political violence and the trauma of uncertainty. It’s easy to see the injustice of Argentina’s Dirty War in all its terrible dimension in hindsight, but what Szilágyi reveals is the sheer torment of experiencing it while it was happening without the benefit of perspective or reflection. While we may long for details regarding the particulars of Daniel’s sociological research and scenes of him at the university to understand what exactly might have gotten him into trouble, Szilágyi withholds this information, even when a curious girl like Pluta would want to know about her father’s work, how he spent the hours he was away from her. The point seems to be that it doesn’t matter what he studied, what he has done or not done, for the government to disappear him. Innocence or guilt is a false question with a regime steeped in arbitrary power. Just before his disappearance, Daniel, Isabel, and Pluta attend a fair, and Daniel suspects he is being followed.
In the pit of his stomach, that irksome twinge sharpened: at some point, he’d grumbled to the wrong person. He didn’t even know who; perhaps he’d grumbled to a few of the wrong people. When he shouldn’t have grumbled at all. It wasn’t even the content of the grumbling that was an issue anymore; the fact itself seemed worrisome enough. An offhand remark in the office? Perhaps after a lecture? A darkened face. He recalled a darkened face in the lecture hall. How long can this go on? Was that all he’d said? Had the darkened expression in the audience registered its answer: as long as it takes? He’d been upset about the students—the one and then the other. Was his question ‘suspicious’ enough? Radios everywhere implored citizens to report ‘suspicious activity.’ Everything suspicious threatened ‘national security.’ How many people used those hotlines? A wave of nausea surged.
Isabel cannot explain to her young daughter what has happened to her father because she knows, but does not know. Without anyone or anything to pin her rage and confusion on, she blames her husband, wonders what he must have said or done to get himself in trouble and put his family in danger. This isn’t particularly likeable behavior, nor is her penchant for shopping, but again, this seems to be Szilágyi’s point, and it is profound. Would we feel her anguish more if she were the ideal wife and mother? How do we expect someone to act in the face of such terror, when confronted with the truth of how little control we have over our lives, no matter our wealth or social standing? Szilágyi’s portrayal of how people draw into themselves, get trapped by their own questioning when there are no answers is authentic and moving, but also creates a narrative dilemma. When we insist our characters be alone, we risk writing ourselves into corners where characters, and readers, get stuck in our own minds. Nevertheless, Daughters of the Air is a clear-eyed meditation on the experience of being haunted by the unknown and what we are perhaps too scared to imagine.
Leena has an MFA in fiction from Bennington College and a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming online at Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, and Harvard Review. She lives in New York and is at work on a story collection.
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