Pluta, the teenager at the heart of Seattle novelist Anca Szilágyi’s debut Daughters of the Air, has all the makings of a fairy tale protagonist. Her life seems cursed: Her father disappears. She wanders into the world alone, meeting monsters. She uncovers her own hidden power. Love pushes her onward, but always seems to be just out of reach.
But this isn’t a fairy tale; it’s fiction, but it feels as real and as insistent as the vein pulsing just over your right eye. Pluta doesn’t live in a kingdom on the fringes of imagination; she grew up in Argentina in the late 1970s. Her father wasn’t cursed by a witch; he was one of the many who were disappeared in the Dirty War. Pluta doesn’t wander in an enchanted forest; instead, she runs away to Brooklyn in 1980, long before the borough was handed over to the white suburban gentry. The aristocratic and mysterious “Pluta” isn’t even her real name; she chose it because her given name of Tatiana stops sounding alive to her.
But as gritty as Daughters gets — and this is a book that spends a lot of time in the gutter — it never entirely shakes off an aura of myth and magic. Szilágyi bombards Pluta with the echoes of ancient weirdness. The Orpheus myth is evoked a few times, for instance, and mermaids and angels are mentioned repeatedly throughout the book.
But this fairy tale angle is not overdone — this isn’t yet another one-to-one retelling of some stale story that Walt Disney has already bludgeoned to death in a multiplex near you. Instead, Szilágyi dusts the real world with just enough magic to surprise the reader. You never know what will come alive. Consider Pluta’s house in Argentina, which…
…always seemed surprised at their arrival, as if they belonged elsewhere: long-eyed windows and a slack-jawed mouth of a door, freshly painted red, mustached with a scalloped and spotted glass marquee.
And after Pluta’s father disappears and her mother exiles her to a private school in New York for her own safety, Pluta finds magic in the detritus of the modern world. Once Pluta runs away to Brooklyn, there’s fantasy everywhere she looks. A smarmy man tells her with some certain kind of wonder about a lake that turned lavender from all the nearby factories churning chemicals into it. Lavender Lake fed into “Buttermilk Channel,” where the water took on a sourness and a viscous consistency. It’s disgusting, sure, but it also has an air of marvelousness to it: imagine a child’s reaction to a lake turning a light purple, or a buttermilk sea.
Of course, eventually Lavender Lake turned as black as ink; too much wonder can kill you. But to hear the man tell Pluta, you’d think that sour onyx water was a fair toll to pay for a world of television and automobiles. Pluta asks him:
“So garbage is the smell of progress?”
“Well,” he said, gazing into his reflection, “we all start out as bottom feeders, don’t we?”
From garbage we came, to garbage we shall return. That’s one way to look at it.
Daughters is a confident and finely wrought novel. Szilágyi is at equally at home writing about Argentina’s complex historical conflict and the glittering garbage heaps of Brooklyn. She focuses unflinchingly on the violence we deliver on each other, and the mental scars that violence leaves behind.
The structure of Daughters — with one chapter following Pluta as a runaway in 1980, followed immediately by a flashback to Argentina in 1978 or 1979 — occasionally feels herky-jerky, with a couple of flashback chapters dragging down the narrative. But at under 300 pages, the book whips past, and those few slow passages only drag for a page or two before everything ramps up again.
The book never loses stride when its attention is focused directly on Pluta. Szilágyi continually reminds us of Pluta’s vulnerability. “She made herself smaller,” Szilágyi writes late in the book, and after so many mentions of Pluta’s tininess, it’s not hard to think of her shrinking like Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Perhaps if she gets small enough, she can finally become as compact and sturdy as an atom?
Pluta wanders around Brooklyn, trusting men too much. “You have such a small, such a little neck,” one man coos at her, just a few minutes before he tries to strangle the life out of her. Though Pluta has seen a lot, though her mother has sent her away to escape a monstrous-but-silent war, men still take advantage of her. She’s ultimately a girl — a child — with very little guile and even less of an understanding of how to navigate the world.
But Pluta learns about her power. While giving oral sex for the first time, she tries to evaluate the power dynamics at play:
Who had the upper hand in this situation? “Watch the teeth,” he grimaced, eyes scrunched. Maybe she did.
My, what big teeth she has. That threat of violence — the kind of violence that can make you cross your legs just reading Daughters — enlarges Pluta, gives her a power of her own. At the beginning of the book, she visits a tattoo parlor and lies about her age (“Fourteen going on eighteen. Not such a big jump.”) and impulsively decides…
…she knew what she wanted. At least at this moment. The only thing that made sense. Wings. Permanent wings along her shoulder blades.
These wings are another intersection between the fantastic and the real in Daughters. They’re a focal point of Pluta’s power, and an assertion of her specialness. They represent her fundamental belief that no matter what happens — no matter what ogre she encounters or what she must do to survive, survival is in fact non-negotiable. She’s a remarkable fictional creation, a character who will take up residence in your head and barge on into your conversations for weeks to come. Her bravery and her weakness make her unique. Even at her worst moments in Daughters, even when she has no hope at all, Pluta still soars.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant