“Daughters of the Air” is the fictionalized version of the story of how one family coped with loss in the 1970s against the surreal backdrop of Argentina’s “Dirty War.”

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“Daughters of the Air”

by Anca L. Szilágyi

Lanternfish Press, 260 pp., $16

Repressive regimes and strong-men rulers have been the backbone of South American political history for centuries. And yet, even within this frame, the brutality of Argentina’s “Dirty War” stands out. During the late 1970s, tens of thousands of the country’s citizens were summarily “disappeared,” political prisoners en masse were dropped from planes into the ocean while still alive, and infants stolen at birth from innocent mothers were adopted into military families.

Literary classics such as “The Kiss of the Spider Woman” and the ironically titled “Imagining Argentina” — because, even given the facts, you can’t — have tried to depict this gruesome period. Now Anca L. Szilágyi’s intense debut novel, “Daughters of the Air,” locates a deeply personal story against the surreal backdrop of those times.

Szilágyi’s tightly focused tale features a Jewish sociology professor, Daniel Spektor, whose ethnicity and profession make him a likely target of the right-wing government that abducts him in 1978. Left with no word about his whereabouts are his high-strung wife, Isabel, and 12-year-old daughter, Tatiana. Both are emotionally shattered by his disappearance, but each reacts to the loss by resisting the other.

Author appearances

Anca L. Szilágyi

The author of “Daughters of the Air” will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 9, at the Inkwell, Vermillion, 1501 11th Ave., Seattle (attheinkwell.com/readings/return-seattle) and at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 30, at Literary Happy Hour at Capitol Cider, 818 E. Pike St., Seattle (capitolcider.com/literary-happy-hour)

The book opens after Isabel and Tatiana, who renames herself Pluta, have relocated to safety in New York. Now 14, “Pluta” runs away from her private boarding school and begins her “summer of wings.” This refers to the tattoos she has placed on her back, which she imagines as instruments of escape — escape being the psychological urge to which both mother and daughter are responding.

Pluta’s rough adventures prove that she’s a survivor, but just barely. She is picked up by assorted men who either help or hurt her. She finally plummets into the murky depths of an urban canal and ends up in a hospital emergency room. These experiences are juxtaposed with flashbacks that draw an intimate portrait of family life both before and after her father’s abduction.

As a character, Pluta is effectively drawn, even as her mother is the more intriguing. Isabel’s anxiety level would have made raising her daughter a tough job under any circumstances. But absorbing her husband’s disappearance along with the responsibilities of parenthood puts her over the top, and what follows is an internal disintegration that is harder to quantify yet more worthy of examination than an adolescent’s acting out.

The most stunning moment comes when a box arrives at their house soon after Daniel’s disappearance. Isabel opens it to find her husband’s wedding ring nestled among two severed hands. As Pluta crouches at the stop of the stairs, “Isabel whimpered and stifled a moan and scrambled to shut the box. Pluta retreated out of her line of sight. Listened as her mother hurried to the back of the house into the garden and retched into the mint patch.”

This is how Isabel deals, by burying the box, both figuratively and literally. Meanwhile, however, her fear and anxiety transmit like radio waves, informing her daughter’s own attempt to escape reality.

“Daughters of the Air” is the work of a promising writer, and I’d only quibble with the final paragraphs, in which Daniel’s fate is made known. For me, being left to wonder and imagine as Szilágyi’s characters did would have been more haunting and powerful.