Review by Lisa Folkmire
Sometimes we forget that a coming-of-age novel is a novel about aging. Wioletta Greg doesn’t want us to forget that. Her novel initially sets out as a story of a young girl seamlessly grows into a story about a young girl and her aging father. It carries themes from both stories: for the daughter, learning how to handle a sexual assault, her first kiss, her first period, her first desire to leave home and pave her own future; for the father, learning how to understand the concept of mortality as he watches his daughter age and feels his own body give way. Wioletta Greg’s Swallowing Mercury is a collection of tiny honest gifts in the guise of a shining coming-of-age debut.
Post-marked by her village’s religious fascination under the Communist regime’s shadow covering Poland at the end of the 20th century, Wioletta’s narrator, Wiola, recalls her upbringing in pockets of memory.
Wiola introduces her father as a stranger, just as he appeared in her own life. The first time Wiola allows the stranger to become her father, she notes, “The Moustache Man, probably delighted that I had called him Daddy for the first time, lifted me up and spun me around in the air. I half-closed my eyes and burst out laughing. The sun’s rays pierced the wasps, which shrank back to rings. The light tickled me like water during a bath in the wooden washtub in our yard” (10). Despite the weight of the first time she admitted that the man was her father, she allows him to melt in with the rest of the memory, avoiding direct recollection of what this moment meant and instead referred to her exact feelings in that moment: her laughter, the relief from fear, the sunlight and return to a feeling of home.
The book continues on with this odd indirectness—something that isn’t a nod to avoidance, but rather to honesty. Wiola’s voice lends itself to living in the present, no matter what the reader wants to hear from the narrator; and what would a child really say, growing up in a country so constantly restructured, even its borders mold to new forms generation by generation? Even the narrator’s faith, in a country that is Catholic to its core, is tested as she only prays to a statue of a saint when she sees it hovering above a surface on its own accord. In a world of strangers turning up as fathers, doctors who take advantage of children during physicals, and government officials out to scare children, belief is hard to come by. For Wiola, it’s hard to believe in anything unless it’s tangible and in plain sight. Maybe that’s why that narrator finds it so important to appease to all of the reader’s senses, as if to say, “this is really what happened.”
Later in the book, when Wiola gets her first period, she writes about asking her grandmother if it’s possible to bleed to death, and after her grandmother hands her some rags, notes, “I ran out to the yard. The sun, white and spotted like a goose egg, burned my cheeks. Blowflies were circling above a trough filled with fermented oats. I crawled inside a rabbit cage and fell asleep on the fresh hay. I dreamt about crimson dandelion clocks” (66). This use of exterior viewpoint for these momentous occasions allows for the moments to become not just ones of personal growth, but also understanding of an atmospheric change. In doing so, Greg perfectly portrays the coming-of-age mindset as it lends itself to the self-absorbed frame that it belongs to.
But through all of these milestones, Greg allows the story to shapeshift through everyday occasions: winning a painting at a fair, a missed visit from the Pope, seeing what the dressmaker keeps behind her locked door.
Wiola almost escapes her self-involved view point in one of these casual moments, as she collects May bugs in a jar. She becomes disillusioned after becoming trapped in a pigpen, as she notices, “The sky, like the lid of my jar, was pierced with stars. Through them, a different kind of lining was showing. From up high, I could see the whole village, with the brownish-green forest to the north and the white circles of the dolomite quarry to the east. I had almost broken through the lid, into the second sky, when suddenly” (74). Just as the narrator adjusts to her new viewpoint, she is brought back to her own inhibited viewpoint.
At one point, Greg lends the story to a new narrator who is never quite pin-pointed. We can assume that it’s that of a man met in transit, as he ends with “this is where I get off” (85). The man recalls the moment that his once friend returned to him, and, after noticing a strawberry mark on his back and calling him “Satan’s child,” he, “knew that she wasn’t joking, that this wasn’t my Jadzia anymore, but just another brat from the village” (84). His once friend shape-shifts into a stranger, much like how Wiola’s father changed from stranger to parent, but instead of accepting her for what she is, he pushes the girl onto a chaff-cutter, killing her. This small, powerful moment from an almost anonymous speaker brings to light the struggles often forgotten about growing up, about the cruelties and quick judgements that we are asked to endure, and provides a brief nod to how powerful a child can be.
Swallowing Mercury is akin to a collection of still-lifes rather than stories. Descriptions give way to age and destruction, much like the novel’s subjects. It is with this attention to careful detail that Greg allows slight realization to become ultimate truth, much like her narrator’s need for tactile proof to concede to her believe, all of which allows her slow portrayal of aging to take the reader by surprise.
By the end of the book, a childhood has passed, and although her father is only 50, he becomes ill. The fine tuning that Greg uses to display the passing of time within her book allows for the punch of the line, “What a strange world this is, before I’ve even had time to blink, they’re calling me old, when inside I’m like an unripe fruit” (134). It’s then that we learn that the father is the other main character of the book, and then that we learn that when we focus on children within a coming-of-age novel–or in life–we neglect to see how time affects us all.
I won’t go much into the ending of the novel, as it is beautiful and transient in its own way. However, I will note that Greg leaves her reader wondering: Can we ever really leave our childhoods behind? And if we do, will our childhood ever leave us?