Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg

Wasps began circling around my plaits like striped piranhas, drinking juice from the little roses on the fabric of my dress and growing larger and larger. One nasty wasp sat on my head, buzzing behind my ear. I lay down on the ground and cried out, ‘Mummy! Mummy! The wasps want to kidnap me!’ But mum wasn’t there.
— Wioletta Greg, Swallowing Mercury

While I do have a very comprehensive book wish list, there is still something magical about being drawn to a random book on display. A literary meetcute, if you will. That was the start of my relationship with Wioletta Greg's novella, Swallowing Mercury, which was waiting patiently for me during my latest visit to the Payot book store. This book was the winner of the English Pen Award, an award offered by a founding center for global literature that promotes work from around the world through grants that cover English translation of pieces of literary merit and courage. Human Acts was another recipient of such an award, but from the American chapter.

This book was both simple and complex - daring in its daily tellings of life in the Polish countryside in the 1980s, a time of Soviet Communist dominance. There is violence, sex, and religious and political aggression, but all woven subtly into the day-to-day life of an adolescent girl who lives with her parents, grandparents and a whole lot of flies.

Animals - alive, dead and taxidermied - play a significant role, with the narrator often anthropomorphizing creatures in a fairytale-like way. My favorite chapter was early on, called 'Blacky'. It told the story of her summer adventures learning the best paths from the scruffy cat - Blacky - she came to consider her closest friend. The cat dies and the girl mourns his loss greatly. However, one day, she goes off to a church raffle, winning a baby Jesus figurine. When she brings it home, her mother, grandmother and what seems like the rest of the village are feathering (plucking feathers for stuffing), but they stop and begin praying to the Jesus statue. Late at night, when everyone else is asleep, the narrator leaves her bed, bows in front of the levitating figure, and prays that her Blacky be raised from the dead.

Girl, I feel you.

This book was an incredible and new reading experience - poetic and episodic, rich in content but sparse in words. I absolutely recommend it, and am not surprised it is longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize this year.