Wioletta Greg achieves a form of literary alchemy that mesmerizes for its ability to situate us inside a personal landscape where both the eternal past and the unfolding present feel as if they can exist simultaneously … Greg trains our gaze on the smallest things — the blood of the weasel, the straw of the mattress — and yet there is also a much larger historical concern that forms the book’s whispered background: The narrator’s coming-of-age coincides with the last troubled days of Soviet-style Communism, and so even the most simply stated memories can’t help being laced with a strange, aching tension.
Greg, who is a poet, writes sparely and evenly, attentive to detail but not overly reliant on it for metaphor or moral. In short chapters she strings together an episodic portrait of Wiola’s childhood that is at once familiar to anyone who’s been young and entirely specific to the experience of being young in the waning years of the Polish People’s Republic … Throughout, Wiola draws on her powers of observation—honed by solitude—to keep herself company, finding wonder and strangeness within, and often beyond, the trappings of daily life that her busy cohabitants take for granted … Wiola’s awareness does not constitute a political consciousness, exactly. But she picks up on contradictions—darkness at the dawn of the 21st century, Communist dictates at odds with communal traditions—that reveal big political currents rippling in her remote outpost.
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 … 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 … 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.
Underneath the pastoral whimsy...lurk threats both political and personal. An unflattering painting of Moscow sees Wiola visited by an inquisitive official, and her passage into young adulthood attracts the attention of predatory men. Wioletta Greg’s first novella shines with a surreal and unsettling vigour. As an award-winning poet, Greg writes with a lyricism that brings alive the charms and dangers of Wiola’s life, while an afterword by translator Eliza Marciniak offers valuable historical context.
Greg’s fictional debut combines the opposing literary styles of socialist realism and magic realism in intoxicating sentences that convey sensuous detail so delightfully that one feels as though one is eating watermelon outdoors in summer … There are rituals and superstitions, drunkards and loving relatives, harvested foods and sordid intentions. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Greg’s novel offers a surprising perspective that challenges the traditional bildungsroman in its brevity and Soviet-era allure.
Greg’s ability to describe moments of great historical, political, and cultural importance through the eyes of a child is wonderful. She remains focused on her young protagonist even as the Soviet Union splinters around her. Even better is Greg’s emphasis on bright, almost otherworldly images that crop up throughout these chapters … Greg’s masterful first novel is charming, seductive, and sinister by turns.
In this excellent debut novel, Greg combines a series of vignettes into a coming-of-age story about persistence through hardship ... The concise sentences and stark language mirror the scarcity of daily life during the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. The protagonist’s recollections also delve into collisions between religious and political ideology, exemplifying the conflict between self and society. Marciniak’s deft translation amplifies the engrossing sensory details of Greg’s heartbreaking and enlivening novel.