There is something perpetually fascinating about coming-of-age narratives, especially when they unfold in a secret country of the past where they do things differently from that of our own childhood. Better yet if they come from the mind of a poet who understands brevity. This enchantingly elliptical fiction debut by British-domiciled Polish poet Wioletta Greg (right) sparkles with a gem-like quality. Thanks to Eliza Marciniak’s crisp translation, it brings freshness even to the crowded genre of the novella-sized bildungsroman, and can be devoured alongside the best coming-of-age translations of recent years, such as Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera and The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov.
Set in the fictional but autobiographically inspired village of Hektary in southern Poland during the 1970s and 80s, Swallowing Mercury is a richly textured portrait of a culture now lost: rural life under one of the milder communist regimes. Though the translator’s contextualising note at the end is useful, Greg straightaway plunges us into a deftly signposted world where jarring elements coexist almost magically. The opening scene of survival and superstition sets the tone: the narrator Wiola is born shortly after her mother is enlisted into a five-year building plan involving cement mixing. An unwilling Stakhanovite, the mother is loyal to pagan custom and ties red string around the baby’s wrist to ward off evil spells. A church ritual follows. With a surprising level of state tolerance for religious practices, every second chapter revolves around a ritual, half-Catholic, half pagan. In Hektary, children cross themselves at roadside shrines, adults say “Holy Mother of God” a lot, and tales of Jerusalem are invoked by mother and grandmother.
In the early childhood scenes, Wiola’s take on her world leans towards the sweetly folkloric – women gather on “feathering evenings” to tear up feathers for stuffing, make cakes on Fat Thursday and refer to periods as “the blood-relation from America” – but any tonal feyness morphs into a wry candour as Wiola’s gaze evolves. Her drawing of a potato beetle is interpreted by a regional art committee as portraying “the crusade of the imperialist beetle”; the friendly children’s doctor puts his penis in her hand “like a roll of modelling clay” – the disparity between the magnitude of the child’s experiences and their unspeakability to the distracted adults is the grit that creates an affecting narrative. In a world of gruff affections and few words, Wiola survives and even thrives thanks to a sly resourcefulness and a country child’s sensory attunement: bread tastes better in the dark; after rain the air smells of “watermelon pulp”; at a provincial wedding “trotters quivered on a plate”. While selling sour cherries at the market with her grandmother, Wiola is devastated by an emotional event whose only outward expression is an infected splinter in her palm.
There are timeless images of country life and death here, one-line descriptions brimming with untold stories, as when her grandmother is glimpsed crossing the fields with a pram full of poppy heads instead of her first-born who has died. Greg is brilliantly humane and subtle in her character studies. An unnamed man on a bus tells Wiola of love and murder in his rural childhood with shocking casualness. But then, in sleepy Hektary, everybody has shocking secrets – even the straight-laced seamstress. In one haunting scene, Wiola lies next to her mother, chewing poppy seeds, and listens to the story of her mother’s schoolmate who went mad because she had to “finish dreaming” the dreams of a local girl executed by the Germans. Never more than a shadow, “the Germans” and the Soviets nevertheless loom behind all village and family history. All characters, even peripheral ones such as Gienek the Combine Driver, are subtly double creations – archetypical and rooted in a specific twilight of history.
Greg moves back and forth across time with a poet’s panache. It is refreshing to find a fiction writer so free of stylistic pomp, so and finely attuned to the truth of her material, a novel so sensually saturated. The full cumulative power of Greg’s prose is felt towards the end, as it accelerates alongside Wiola’s adolescence – until we are swept into the unknown.
To order Swallowing Mercury (Portobello) for £11.04 (RRP £12.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.