Swallowing Mercury: from the Man Booker International Prize 2017 

Wioletta Greg, Swallowing Mercury (2014) 

Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak (2017) 

This book is an episodic chronicle of a rural Polish childhood during the late communist era. It’s a time and place where tradition and modernity meet and intermingle: life is punctuated with the sound of litanies being recited as well as periods when the entire parish has its electricity cut off (“energy-saving measures”, according to the local power station).

Each chapter is a string of interconnected moments; so many shine like pearls in the memory. In one aside, Wiola the narrator burns peppercorns to clear out a family party, just so that she can take another matchbox label for her collection. In another chapter, Wiola’s school holds a contest to see who can collect the most scrap metal for a new central heating system. Wiola’s team spend days collecting a great pile of scrap, only to see their cart fall down an abyss at the last.

Something felt odd about Swallowing Mercury, and it took a while before I realised what it was. Although Wiola is a first-person narrator, she never reveals her innermost thoughts, as one would typically expect such a narrator to do. As a result, there’s a powerful contrast between the events of the novel, which are so vivid; and the essential mystery of Wiola’s response to them. It’s a reading experience I’ll remember for some time.


Should this book reach the MBIP shortlist?


Swallowing Mercury has really grown in my mind since I read it; so I’m going to say yes, I think it would well deserve a place on the shortlist. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t make my top six; it would take a very strong longlist for that to happen. 

2 Comments

  1. This is the only one on the list I’ve really made note of so far, though that may change. It sounds very good. Interesting thought on the lack of her internal experience – do you see that as a deliberate authorial choice or is it simply a blurring of first and third person perspective?

    • Hi Max. I think it has to be a deliberate decision, because its effects are too precise and consistent. When I consider some of the things that happen in the book, I feel that a writer would only step back from them by conscious choice.

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