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February 5, 2018

Book Notes - Anca L Szilagyi "Daughters of the Air"

Daughters of the Air

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Anca L Szilagyi's novel Daughters of the Air is an debut about grief inspired by fairy tales, myth, and Argentina's Dirty War.

Cleaver wrote of the book:

"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."


In her own words, here is Anca L Szilagyi's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Daughters of the Air:



Daughters of the Air is about a girl, Tatiana "Pluta" Spektor, whose father is "disappeared" during Argentina's Dirty War. Her grieving mother sends her away to boarding school outside of New York City, but she runs away to New York City in an attempt to understand, in her own way, the fate of her father. The book draws on myth and fairy tale—Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," the myths of Orpheus and Icarus—exploring visceral responses to unresolved tragedy.

"I've Seen That Face Before (Libertango)" by Grace Jones
The book opens with Tatiana on a dark country road; it's 1980 and she's just escaped from boarding school. There's a thrill in this moment—she's made it out, she'll forge her own path. A green Cadillac pulls up, a young man is inside, and she hitches a ride, telling him her name is Pluta. There's a hint of criminality to the man, but she thinks it's all kind of glamorous. This song is of the era, of course, and I think it captures both that glamorous thrill and something darker to come.

"Lazarus" by David Bowie
We only get a fleeting glimpse at Daniel, Pluta's father, before he is disappeared. But his ghostly presence follows Pluta, first to Brazil, where her Aunt Lolo lives, then on to New York, to the beach, to the industrial streets of Gowanus, Brooklyn. Here in David Bowie's final song there's also that ardent ghostliness.

"It's Never Over (Hey, Orpheus)" by Arcade Fire
In some sense, Pluta is Orpheus, descending into an underworld in search of what she's lost. The refrain "it's never over" calls up for me a moment where Pluta imagines her father's disappearance recurring on a loop; she wonders if there's a way to step into that loop and make it stop.

"You Want It Darker" by Leonard Cohen
Prior to Daniel's disappearance, Isabel, his wife and Pluta's mother, is of a mindset that prefers to think those who disappeared "must have done something" to deserve it. She would prefer not to notice the horrors around her. For me, the phrase "you want it darker" evokes the idea of horrors worsening when we do this. That mindset was one of the initial reasons I began to research the Dirty War: how do we allow mass murder to recur? And these lyrics also evoke the compliance required for mass atrocity:

They're lining up the prisoners

And the guards are taking aim

I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame

I didn't know I had permission to murder and to maim

"The Lyre of Orpheus" by Nick Cave
I don't want to give away spoilers, so I'll just ask: how much darker do you want it?

"Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash
At some point, the darkness is finally too much. Again, I don't want to give anything away, but there is this.

"Enchanté" by Klaus Nomi
There's a moment in Pluta's journey where everything goes haywire. Her attempts at escape become more frenzied . She's figuring out how to spread her wings, and she feels on the edge of "Catastrophe, or revelation." The strangeness of Klaus Nomi's music keys into this bit of mania. This song is part of an unfinished opera Nomi was working on before he died at age 39 in 1983, of complications from AIDS.

"Down by the Water" by PJ Harvey
One of the atrocities committed by the military dictatorship in Argentina was to throw prisoners out of planes into the ocean. The Gowanus Canal, in Brooklyn, in a way, becomes a place where Pluta begins to confront this atrocity.

"Bird Gerhl" by Antony and the Johnsons
Of all the songs on this playlist, "Bird Gherl" has been associated with Daughters of the Air the longest. There's a sense of healing here, some solace for Pluta. As dark as this novel gets, there is hope for her.


Anca L Szilagyi and Daughters of the Air links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
video trailer for the book

Cleaver review
Seattle Times review
Seattle Review of Books review
Shelf Awareness review

Lilith interview with the author
Read Learn Live Podcast interview with the author
Salon essay by the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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