Swallowing Mercury – Wioletta Greg

(Tr. Eliza Marciniak)

“Between sleep and waking, he seemed to have the impression that pine needles had grown out of this thighs and that brambles had sprung up inside his boots.”

My second MBI 17 read and this one ticked a lot of my boxes. I’ve seen a lot of ‘meh’ reviews, people saying they were mislead by the book’s blurb, but quite frankly I think the blurb tells exactly what Wioletta’s debut is (the book’s blurb is basically a mini series of images – much like the  novella itself).  If you don’t like vignettes don’t even bother with this one. If you have no interest in Eastern Europe, Soviet history or rich textured poetic language – again I say walk away. Me, however, I love ALL of these things. Vignettes are a lifeline to me, a way of understanding the extraordinary in the ordinary, my preferred method of mindfulness. Poetry is in my blood and having met the love of my life who is a Russian – I can honestly say that I will devour anything set in 1980s Eastern Europe.

“My grandmother added cream to the sour rye and potato soup and opened the window a crack. The sooty net curtains billowed out like fish swim bladders.”

Wioletta’s coming-of-age novella reads like folklore, rich with images and laced with religious imagery. Normally I’m not a fan of religious matter, however Wioletta keeps it quaint and delicate, it serving only to enhance her Polish tapestry. Her language is exquisite and I found myself rereading so many sentences for their sheer beauty and originality. One of my favourites being: “The asphalt glistened like the skin of an aubergine.”

Our main character is Wiola and we follow her as she narrates her life through a series of vignettes, events in her town, and experiences she and her family go through. Her father is a deserter, a taxidermist, a terrible gambler. Her mother is devout and superstitious – believing that killing spiders brings on storms. Wiola collects matchbox labels, likes to paint and befriends a local harlot.

“In the water, the slender misproportioned body with small crimson nipples looked like a beetle with an elongated abdomen which I used to see sometimes by the edge of the pond but whose name I couldn’t remember.”

Wiola’s experience, despite it’s initial exoticness to the Western reader, is wholly universal. We begin through the eyes of a child, hiding under a table looking out at the world with ears covered as raspberry juice drips from above. As Wiola grows, so do we. We rebel, lust and are lusted after, we are dealt grief and loss.

Swallowing Mercury is rich and cozy with a warmth emanating from the pages. It is the familiar in the unfamiliar and even though it may begin a little rough in texture, it rubs off on you, smooth and comforting as a hug from a loved one. Four stars from me and now I am keenly on the lookout for some of Wioletta’s poetry ~

“That evening, we sat in the glow of the stove like prehistoric insects frozen in amber: my father submerged in his new world of muffled sounds, and me stupefied by Milocardin and irregular forms of German verbs. The air shimmered over the stovepipe. Sparks shot out of the ash pan and vanished on the marbled lino like meteors falling into a dark, dense ocean.”

 

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