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.