Polish poet Wioletta Greg's debut novel is a rich and strange reminiscence of growing up in soviet Poland.
Wiola is a young teenage girl living in the Jurassic Uplands of southern Poland. She lives in the small village of Hektary, a close knit community reliant mostly on farming. It's the 1980s, the time just before the fall of the Polish People's Republic, a communist run state.
In a series of vignettes, Wiola describes her life in rural Poland, a life that is lived on the land among farm animals and idiosyncratic locals, but also with the detritus of a failing economy filling out the background (old tyres and scrap metal litter the landscape). There's a procession led by a picture of the Holy Virgin; a bungled visit by the Pope; visits to the local dressmaker, who doubles as a fortune teller; an odd train trip with an obsessive talker; and even glue sniffing with young boys followed by juvenile sexual experiments.
While Swallowing Mercury is set in the fairly recent past, and is held in time and place by its references to key Soviet era events, the novel feels atemporal. Wiola's descriptions are so organic and uncanny – concentrating on smell and texture – that the reader feels plunged into some kind of mythic past. One of the key achievements of the book is how Wioletta Greg seamlessly mixes personal memoir, the decay of the communist Polish state and the country's deep rooted Catholic and pagan traditions.
Written in plain, direct language, but with a poet's eye for detail, Swallowing Mercury inexorably draws you into a world that is rich and strange. It's a pity that the novel seemed to end so soon.
Swallowing Mercury, by Wioletta Greg. Published by Portobello. ISBN: 9781846276095 RRP: $19.99
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