Title: Swallowing Mercury
Author: Wioletta Greg
Genre: Fiction, literary fiction, historical fiction
Where I got the book: I purchased this book through Book Depository.
My rating: ★★★★☆
Summary: Wiola lives in a close-knit agricultural community in Poland. She is a good Catholic girl who collects matchbox labels and has been brought up on fables and superstition. We follow her through ordinary days filled with extraordinary impressions, from childhood to adolescence.
“‘What a strange world this is,’ he said to me suddenly[…]. ‘Before I’ve even had time to blink, they’re already calling me old, when inside I’m like an unripe fruit.'”
– Swallowing Mercury, Wioletta Greg
This is a short and sweet book, pretty much a novella, that can be seen as a coming-of-age story since it deals with topics such as sexuality, puberty, grief, etc. However, rather than an actual plot we follow the narrator Wiola through a series of vignettes concerning her life and growing up in a rural Polish village in the 1970s-80s.
I quite enjoyed this little book, which was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017. It’s filled with mostly ordinary but quirky snippets and episodes from daily life, although a couple of incidents are deeply serious and at times honestly a bit shocking. The book isn’t very cohesive since there is essentially no plot; instead each chapter is centered around something new, whether this is preparing for the Pope to drive past the village or collecting scrap metal for a school competition. It’s almost like reading a diary, or a sort of memoir, and the language is simple but gorgeous. It’s so poetic and lyrical and at times it creates the most lovely imagery, it was just so easy to picture the surroundings even without any prior knowledge of the setting. I also really appreciate the fact that we see everything through Wiola’s eyes and the way this is written. You easily notice the change in her observations as she grows up, but we still mostly see everything the way a child would see it, and there’s a certain kind of innocent (sometimes hilariously deadpan) filter to everything that’s described.
Since I’m not familiar with Polish history or traditions, or the political climate in 1970s-80s Poland, there were a couple of references in here that completely went over my head or that I just failed to appreciate. The translator’s note shares some interesting facts and helped shed some light on the book as a whole, but it’s a shame this was placed at the end of the book instead of at the beginning to serve as an introduction. Even without reading up on anything about Poland in this time period, a brief introduction would have given me a much better starting point, especially since this is such a short book and I didn’t really want to spend too much time trying to make sense of the basic context.
I also think that even though I personally didn’t have a problem with the story lacking cohesiveness, this is definitely also a weak point. You have to take each chapter for what it is and even when you do return to previous events it doesn’t feel like much is actually discussed or resolved or developed. Sometimes you leave an incident altogether and it’s never touched upon again. If this had been a longer book it would quickly have become a tiresome read because you don’t feel like you’re moving towards anything specific. I think there’s only so much magic you can draw out of an ordinary event and still make it sound interesting.
That said, I really loved the language, as mentioned, and also the narrator. That is mainly what captivated me and had me finishing this in pretty much one sitting. It’s an easy and different read that pleasantly surprised me and I definitely think it’s worth checking out.