Thirteen-year-old Emma grows up under an Eastern European dictatorship where oppression seems eternal. When her dissident parents die in a car accident, she’s taken to an orphanage, only to be adopted soon after by a grandmother she has never met.
... achieves, like its English title, a disconcerting juxtaposition of the mundane and the primeval ... not so much a work of traditional magical realism as a 471-page object lesson in the uncanny. Dragoman depicts the prosaic with a meticulous pacing normally reserved for the eerie or the ominous, adopting the obsessive focus of a director’s eye on, say, someone unlocking a forbidden attic door. Meanwhile, what might be genuinely magical (divination, a grandfather’s ghost, ants and foxes that act with folkloric logic) is indulged with no sharper a lens, so that it becomes disorientingly unclear what is normal, what is supernatural and what is simply the unstable ground of an adolescence flooded with trauma ... That this slippery narration — a risky choice — not only propels the story forward but also resonates with the book’s themes of instability and skewed perception is a testament to Dragoman’s powers. He reaches back to folklore but also speaks to this artistic moment, in which genre and its ancestral roots permute and enrich highly regarded capital-l Literature ... The timing is perfect: The novel reaches an American audience at a moment when we’re feeling not only the seismic shifts of historical change, and the hard reckoning after a strongman’s fall, but also the ways magical thinking, conspiracy and rumor seep through the cracks during times of turmoil ... Whether this novel will find the same success in the United States that it has found elsewhere depends perhaps on the extent to which American readers will surrender themselves, as Emma has, to the whims of a skilled but inscrutable abductor. Like the mysterious grandmother, Dragoman seems to have our best interests at heart. This is a story, after all, in which dreams and phantasms are kinder and more sensical than the random brutality of the concrete world. To that end, his telling is not just magic, but enchantment.
Contrasting narrative styles illustrate the strikingly different manners in which the two characters process their respective traumas ... Discursive plotting allows Dragomán to draw parallels between Emma’s adolescent growing pains and those felt by her country as it tries to rebuild itself in the wake of communism’s collapse ... A poignant coming-of-age tale set against the backdrop of regime change.