Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg

Review published on November 14, 2017.

Does a novel sometimes elude part of its structure? When it is translated from its native language into another language?

Before reading this short novel I lent it to a Polish friend. They did enjoy the book but did not enjoy the translation, explaining that the story telling was let down by the novel losing some of its Polish identity. This did not have the same effect on my reading, what did effect my full enjoyment of this novel was the subject matter. Communism in Eastern Europe, Roman Catholic Church in the 1970s/80s, this was due to my lack of knowledge of these subjects.

There is a need to undertake some research of Poland in the 1970s/80s under communist control to gain a level of understanding to achieve a better comprehension of the story. This hindered some of my enjoyment of this novel due to my lack of understanding of the climate of that time in Poland. Also, by placing the translators notes in the beginning of the novel instead of at the end, would in my estimation improve readers’ enjoyment.

I did find this book a fascinating account of rural village life in a made up village called Hektary. Village life is described in illustrious detail in a lyrical way. This is no surprise as the author Wioletta Greg’s poetry collection was shortlisted for the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize.

The novel has 23 chapters and read like many short stories. This hindered the novel due to it not being plot driven and therefore there was no connecting the characters. But I did connect to the main character Wiola, a young girl with all the problems a young girl would face growing up and sometimes issues within her dysfunctional family. My favourite character was Wiola’s father, an army deserter and taxidermist, and I liked how his character was built up.

Religion and superstition blended into the story line very well, communism is only a brief theme throughout the novel. It is a wonderful account of village life in Poland.

Ian Wells 4/1

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg
Portobello Books Ltd 9781846276095 pbk Nov 2017


Histories by Sam Guglani


SECOND OPINION: First Person by Richard Flanagan

You may also like