The stories in Wioletta Greg’s Swallowing Mercury (translated by Eliza Marciniak into crisp British English) offer glimpses into the life of a girl coming of age in the last decade of communist Poland. In the small Silesian village of Herkaty, the larger world barely intrudes into the narrator’s world. There are only the slightest allusions to the Solidarity movement or shortages. The narrator’s family’s Catholic faith and folk medicine, as well as World War II, loom larger than anything that might be happening in the big cities.
Over the course of the stories in this collection, we see our narrator—also named Wioletta—transition from a blissfully clueless child who captures may flies and cries over a lost cat to a tough young woman who has learned to turn her hand to any occupation that might earn the family money and get out of situations with overly amorous neighbors. (The stories in which Wioletta dodges sexual abuse may be triggering for some readers.) By the end of the collection, there is little joy or whimsy left in Wioletta.
One of the stories, “Masters of Scrap,” can be read as the collection in miniature. In this story, Wioletta and her classmates are given the task of collecting scrap metal from all over the town for their school. They start with the easy pickings before escalating to stealing useful bits from people’s houses and properties. In the end, they lose it all in a mishap with a cart, a quarry, and a friend in jeopardy. The story swiftly moves from good dutifulness to apathetic resignation.
“Unripe” affected me the most of all the stories. This story captures the sorrow Wioletta and her family feel after Wioletta’s father, Rysiu, dies of a heart attack. His death leaves a large emotional hole in the extended family. After returning from camp, our narrator reaches out to hold her father’s hand one more time and sees his life in flashes. These flashes show Wioletta how a life of hardship, physical labor, and war shaped Rysiu.
A reader might have expected “Neon Over Jupiter,” the last story, to include a sense of hopefulness. After all, coming of age narratives usually end with a sense of leaving the past behind to move into the bright future. This story has none of that. Instead, Wioletta is tempted to run away with her glue-huffing sort-of boyfriend before changing her mind when she sees him passed out at the bus stop. She ends up slouching home, back into the past.
By the end of this collection of short stories, I was left with an impression of a young girl who has learned to shift for herself in a little town without resources. I’ve been left with a melancholy impression of a dead end life for our narrator. We have no clue what Wioletta will do in her adult life. There are certainly few opportunities for anything other than a life of the hardscrabble poverty she, her parents, and her grandparents grew up with. Wioletta’s life can almost be read as a rebuke to the narrative of hope after decades of communist rule. Far away, things are happening that might make life better for Poles—but very little of those changes have touched our narrator’s life or the lives of the rural poor.
I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 12 September 2017.