I was incredibly intrigued by poet Wioletta Greg’s first prose piece, Swallowing Mercury, particularly given that it was chosen for an online book club which I run. The novella, translated from its original Polish by Eliza Marciniak, is the winner of the English PEN Award. Sarah Perry writes that she ‘experienced this book like a series of cool, clear drinks, each one more intoxicating than the last’, and Carys Davies compares the ‘freshness and truthfulness’ here to the work of Elena Ferrante and Tove Jansson, a personal favourite of mine.
The focus of Swallowing Mercury is upon a young girl named Wiola, who is growing up in a fictional village in southern Poland during the 1970s and 80s. It is ‘about the ordinary passing of years filled with extraordinary days. In vivid prose filled wit texture, colour and sound, it describes the adult world encroaching on the child’s. From childhood to adolescence, Wiola dances to the strange music of her own imagination.’ Swallowing Mercury is a coming-of-age work, and looks particularly at the way in which its young protagonist interacts with the world and people around her.
The book is relatively fragmented, and is made up of many short, and sometimes barely connected chapters. Its blurb gives only a few, largely unusual details about Wiola, ranging from the fact that her ‘father was a deserter but now he’s a taxidermist’, and that her mother ‘tells her that killing spiders brings on storms.’ Many of the chapters follow a similar suit, focusing on a single element of Wiola’s life, like her fascination for collecting matchboxes. The Poland which Wiola belongs to ‘is both very recent and lost in time.’ The chapters in Swallowing Mercury are essentially vignettes, many of which have quite enchanting and intriguing titles – for instance, ‘The Fairground Girl’, ‘Little Table, Set Thyself!’, and ‘The Belated Feeding of Bees’.
I found Greg’s prose rather beguiling, echoing as it does fables and fairytales. ‘The Fairground Girl’, the first chapter in the collection, begins for instance: ‘A christening shawl decorated with periwinkle and yellowed asparagus fern hung in the window of the store house for nearly two years. It tempted with a little rose tucked in its folds, and I would have used it as a blanket for my dolls, but my mother wouldn’t let me go near it.’ Also in this chapter, in which the fairytale element is arguably the strongest with regard to what follows, Greg writes: ‘She brought me home in February. Still bleeding from childbirth, she lay down on the bed, unwrapped my blanket, which reeked of mucus and urine, rubbed the stump of my umbilical cord with gentian violet, tied a red ribbon around my neck to ward off evil spirits and fell asleep for a few hours. It was the sort of sleep during which a person decides whether to depart or to turn back.’
The quite lovely imagery which Greg creates is startling and fantastical; she talks, for instance, of her mother’s ‘head wreathed with a string of little bagels’, a man having the ‘impression that pine needles had grown out of his thighs and that brambles had sprung up inside his boots’, and that ‘woodworms were playing dodgeball using poppy seeds that had fallen from the crusts of freshly baked bread.’
Swallowing Mercury has a real sense of imagination at its core. I really enjoyed the unusual quality of the stories here, and enjoyed the interconnectedness which does begin to build once one gets a feel for Wiola’s character. A real sense of dark humour suffuses the collection, and the social history of Poland has been well woven in. The author has paid such attention to a lot of Polish customs, both in a familial and religious sense. Greg strikes a nice balance between realism and things which are slightly out of the ordinary. Swallowing Mercury held my attention throughout; it has a real depth and flavour to it. Some of the chapters are like Russian dolls, with stories nestling inside other stories. I very much look forward to reading whichever of Greg’s books are translated into English in future, and hope to pick up some of her poetry too.