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.