Content warning: violence, death (incl. suicide)
My ninth book in the 2022 challenge is The Bone Fire by György Dragomán. The book satisfies Category 21 of the challenge, a novel with a woman protagonist. I’m also counting Dragomán as a Romanian author, as he was born in Romania, not to mention that the novel takes place in Dragóman’s native Transylvania.
The story centers around Emma, a recently-orphaned 13-year-old in the months immediately following the Romanian Revolution. After a short stay in an orphanage, Emma is picked up by a grandmother she has never met and is only referred to as Grandmother throughout the novel.
After some initial difficulties, Emma begins to adjust to her new life. In addition to discovering some of her talents, Grandmother also begins to teach Emma what appears to be folk magic. However, many townspeople regard Grandmother with suspicion because they believe she was a Securitate (secret police) informer during the communist era.
What I liked
Dragomán’s prose is some of the most vivid that I’ve encountered recently. Almost Toni Morrison levels of vivid, which is quite an accomplishment. When he describes something, it’s very easy to imagine yourself in the middle of it.
Another element I enjoyed was how the post-revolution paranoia seemed to play out pretty similarly whether it was between Emma and her classmates or Grandmother and her fellow townspeople. One of my favorite bits in the novel is when a teacher breaks up a fight between two students where one accuses the other’s father of being an informer. The accuser is eager to spill all these accusations to the teacher, who points out, now who’s the informer? I thought this was a great illustration of how it’s so easy to turn into the thing you claim to despise.
I also appreciate that Dragomán leaves certain elements of the story open to interpretation. One person who my wife and I discussed the book with put forth the theory that there was nothing magical about Grandmother’s acts, but because it’s so unfamiliar to Emma, it seems like magic to her. It’s cool to me that the story works either way.
What I didn’t like
Man, could this book have used an editor. There were so many tangents that, while they were interesting anecdotes in their own right, didn’t advance the story. I feel like I’m starting to sound like a broken record on this to the point where I should probably explain what I mean by that.
Advancing the story doesn’t have to be one of those plot-on-rails situations. Indeed, I don’t usually find those particularly enjoyable. But I feel like a scene should either advance the plot in the simple sense or shed light on a character’s behavior or motivations that are relevant to the story. If the reader is left wondering, “Why are you telling me this?”, then that’s a problem for me. In The Bone Fire there’s an entire subplot that’s just wrapped up with no explanation of what actually happened.
Like the subplot mentioned in the previous paragraph, I felt like the book just kind of ended, albeit in a different way than I’m an Old Commie! did. That book felt like it just kind of ran out of steam. The Bone Fire felt more like the ending of The Sopranos – a sudden fade to black with no explanation.
This was mostly an enjoyable read. Although Emma is a less interesting character than Grandmother, I still think it makes sense to have her as the protagonist, as it’s useful to see this world through fresh eyes. And Dragomán is very effective at crafting beautifully written scenes.
What’s your take on tangents in a story? Are you ok with a little side journey here and there? Leave your thoughts in the comments!