According to her official biography, the Polish poet Wioletta Greg learned English by studying the poems of Seamus Heaney. It would probably be unwise to read too much into that fact, but at the same time there are undeniably echoes of Heaney’s work scattered throughout this highly evocative debut novella, which hovers beguilingly somewhere between straight coming-of-age memoir and slightly surreal folk tale. Heaney’s poetry often focuses on his fascination with the soil and what lies beneath it – think of his so-called “Bog Poems” like “The Grauballe Man” or his poem “Digging” in which he at once celebrates the spadework of his forbears and characterises writing as his own kind of excavation. In a similar vein, Greg is very much a poet of the earth. When the spring thaw comes to the fictional village of Hektary in the Jurassic Uplands of southern Poland, the narrator, Wiola, says the soil smells of “decaying roots, mud, cardamom”; the dirt floor of the pigsty on her family’s farm is “warm and damp”; even the village church smells “of sweet flag leaves and silt, like a drying bog”. And as in Heaney, the various different strata of human history can always be found lurking just beneath the topsoil: we learn, for example, that a five-year-old girl executed by the Germans during the Second World War is “buried behind the priest’s field, in what later became part of a state-owned farm”.
The book’s 20-odd chapters – translated into English by Eliza Marciniak – follow Wiola through her childhood and adolescence during the 1970s and 80s, the last few years of the Polish People’s Republic. The political situation is occasionally alluded to, but mostly it is seen as through a child’s eyes. When General Wojciech Jaruzelski declares martial law in 1981, for example, it is mainly significant to the narrator because the announcement interferes with the regular TV schedules. Of far greater importance to the people of Hektary is the Church, and there’s a wonderful chapter, “Waiting for the Popemobile”, in which the villagers pull out all the stops to prepare a length of home-made bunting for a rumoured drive-past from the pontiff, only to be disappointed when they learn that he has travelled by helicopter instead.
That story neatly encapsulates the strange, halfway-house era of the book – a time with one foot still in the pre-industrial world of communal sewing and the other in the modern world of helicopters. Greg’s great achievement is to conjure up that period so vividly that you can smell it, taste it and feel it.
*Swallowing Mercury, by Wioletta Greg, Portobello, £12.99