Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg

Book Review by Annie Rutherford | 01 Feb 2017
Book title: Swallowing Mercury
Author: Wioletta Greg

Wioletta Greg's Swallowing Mercury (beautifully translated by Eliza Marciniak) captures the almost dreamlike quality of childhood memories. Following the life of Wiola, a young girl growing up as the communist Polish state crumbles in the background, the novella is quietly but constantly sensual.

Each chapter offers a distinct moment in Wiola’s life over the course of a decade: a visit to the fairground, a disastrous attempt to win an art competition, a disturbing encounter with the local doctor. These moments are firmly anchored through sight, sound and smell to a particular season or weather, whether the sky spins 'candyfloss out of the clouds' or the wind whistles off-key.

Unsurprisingly for a writer primarily known as a poet, Greg is a master of the unsaid. This adds to the novella’s gentle surreal feel, but can leave the reader somewhat disorientated; we rarely know exactly what age Wiola is, or how much time has passed between chapters. While Greg’s subtle political references can add to this disorientation (although a translator’s note at the end offers a helpful guide), her send-ups of political language and officious bureaucrats are comedy gold.

Not quite novel, not quite short story, the novella can be in danger of becoming a forgotten form. In a publishing landscape of heavy tomes and never-ending series, it’s refreshing to come across gems like this elegant, sparse book.

Out now, published by Granta Books, RRP £12.99