How fresh is the voice of a young girl, especially in the hands of Wioletta Greg. It is as if I am listening to one of my students telling me a story; there is a mixture of the bizarre within truth such that you can hardly separate the facts from the imagination. Both are equally important to the story teller, and in this case, to me, the reader.
In chapters which could stand alone, but together contribute to the overall story, we see what it is like to pass from childhood to adulthood in a Polish rural community during the 1970s and ’80s. Often the chapters will hold luminous description and then end suddenly, jarringly, with a revelation about adults which they have tried to keep secret. It’s as though the girl speaking to us, Wiola, has an omniscient eye. She tells us everything, with no agenda or shame.
What is behind the locked door at the dressmaker’s house? Why does Wiola swallow mercury after coming back from the doctor’s? How does the (fictional) town of Hektary prepare for the visiting portrait of Our Lady from St. Anthony’s Basilica? How does a small group of students, organized by the student council to search for scrap metal, turn into a game of spin the bottle in an old woman’s basement?
Wiola will not bend to the expectations of authority around her (much like her father who deserted the army and became a taxidermist). She would rather burn her collection of matchbook labels than acquiesce to the demands of a bachelor who catches her reaching for his box of Orbis travel agency matches featuring Krakow’s famous Lajkonik horsemen.
As she grows up, the political events of Poland during this time period are gently referred to. Familiar names to me, such as Lech Wałęsa, make the briefest of appearances to remind us that this is more than a coming of age story. It is also a finger pointing to the realities of daily life in Poland at the end of the communist era.
Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg
Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak
Published by Portobello, January 5, 2017