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Growing Up With a Revolution, and a Mystic Grandmother

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“The Bone Fire” is set in the aftermath of a revolution similar to the one that ended Romanian Communism: In December 1989, a week of riots and violence overturned the government, led to President Nicolae Ceausescu’s Christmas Day execution, and suddenly transformed the country. At the novel’s start, Emma’s school term at the orphanage has already included the gleeful removal of pictures of the former comrade general. Supermarkets are opening for the first time, with “everything that exists under the sun, everything, but really everything, 30 different kinds of toothpaste, eight different kinds of butter, 15 different kinds of cheese.” In her grandmother’s city, Emma’s fellow students are reeling from an uprising in which some were killed, some took on gang allegiances, some followed the lead of a firebrand art teacher and some are still caught up in lingering accusations of complicity. Emma’s dead grandfather, for one, may have been a Securitate informer — or perhaps his roles in the regime and the revolution were more complicated.

The new order does not mean an easy peace. Revolution follows revolution, and vengeance keeps coming not only for those who were complicit in the Securitate’s rein, but even for the family members left behind, like Emma’s grandmother. “The more dead people there are,” as Emma bitterly understands the calculus, “the more truth there will be.”

Everything about Emma’s life is liminal, upheaved — adolescence, regime change, a new city, a new home — and it’s in such shaky times that foundational superstitions rise more easily to the surface, making the ordinary seem extraordinary and vice versa. The result is not so much a work of traditional magical realism as a 471-page object lesson in the uncanny. Dragoman depicts the prosaic (the destruction of an ant colony, the yield of a walnut tree, the eating of sardines) 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.

Structurally, “The Bone Fire” defies a tidy narrative arc, drifting between scenes without much overarching plot, sliding between magical thinking and magic, between the clarity of adulthood and the fog of adolescence, between political enlightenment and ancient wisdom. 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.

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