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Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg – Coming of Age Story set in Rural Poland

21st March, 2017

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg

Swallowing Mercury offers glimpses into growing up in rural Poland, with a tone of nostalgia sprinkled with gritty passages. The novel made it to the Man Booker International Longlist 2017.


Swallowing Mercury is a coming of age novella set in a fictional village in southern Poland during the 1970s and 80s. The village is inspired from Wioletta’s own life and our heroine is named Wiola. I was eager to read this novella after reading a chapter in Granta Magazine – Spiders from Jerusalem which I thought had a melancholy, yet spectacular feel. I was in for a nice surprise. Wiola takes us through her childhood shedding light on the rural and difficult life around her. We see her mother waiting for her father to return home, her father who loves to stuff dead animals, the village seamstress who has a secret and a doctor with evil intentions.

As the book progresses, several changes appear in Wiola’s disposition with age. When her doctor puts his penis in her hand, “like a roll of modelling clay” , she kicks him even though she is just a small child. But she gets rebuked by her mother for behaving badly. The rift between the child’s horrific experience and the adult’s ignorance makes your heart feel heavy. However when she grows older and is asked to spend time with a boy whom she doesn’t like, by her family, she declines to do so.

There are several sarcastic passages in the book that made me smile along the read. Wiola’s drawing of a potato beetle is interpreted by a regional art committee as portraying “the crusade of the imperialist beetle”.

Each chapter is like a snippet of the girl’s life. The writing is sparse, yet rich in texture. This is a world where the air after a rainy day smells of ‘watermelon pulp’ and there are ‘spiders from Jerusalem’. I think the chapters  would work well even if you read them in a different order. Swallowing Mercury only offers glimpses that may or may not be threaded together. The novella is all about Wiola, what she sees and what she feels. Those who look for a strong plot or character development in a book might be disappointed.

Final Verdict :

The book is fragmented in its narrative style. It was not a memorable read for me but when I was reading each chapter, I really enjoyed the writing. I don’t know how to explain my feelings about the book. If I had read each chapter as individual articles, I would have loved it. But it did not work for me as a book. Or maybe my personal taste does not humour fragmented narratives. Those who have enjoyed by Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, would love the book. If you would enjoy a coming-of-age novel that makes you smile at times and uncomfortable at times, you would enjoy this.

Title : Swallowing Mercury
Author : Wioletta Greg ; Translated by : Eliza Marciniak from the Polish
Publisher : Portobello Books
Published : 2017 (Originally 2014)
Language : English
Pages : 160
Rating : 3/5

Disclaimer : Much thanks to Portobello Books for a copy of the book.  All opinions are my own. 

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Swallowing Mercury
This Post Has 22 Comments
  1. It sounds like a good entry to the #EU27Project – would love it if you could link it there whenever you get a moment.
    As for the ‘vignette’ style of storytelling – I’ve noticed that quite a bit in recent fiction. I wonder if it reflects our more easily dispersed attention?

    1. I will definitely do that MarinaSofia. I was of the impression that the EU27Project is a closed group.
      You put forward an interesting point. Yes, our attention span is so limited now. That might be a reason that such fragmented narratives are becoming popular.

    1. I was intrigued by one chapter that appeared in Granta. It had a wonderful feel to it. I have included a link above, so maybe you can read and see if you like Wioletta’s style of writing?

  2. I think this is a book I’d enjoy this book. For some reason I like coming of age stories and I got sold immediately after seeing it’s set in the 70s 80s

  3. I have to say, that’s a shocking-sounding title to a book. Just makes me cringe, brr.
    Hard to write reviews for these “nothing-books” :p the ones that didn’t give you a particular feel.

    1. Well, it is not like I did not felt moved by the book. I enjoyed several chapters, admired the writing style but the book as a whole did not work so well for me. Had I read the chapters as separate articles I think I would have loved it more. The choice of descriptive words is highly original and the melancholic feel that hangs throughout the book is commendable.

  4. Oh, I was intrigued by this when the Man Booker International longlist was announced but I’m not a fan of fragmented narrative either… I’ll guess I’ll pass on this one 🙁

      1. The only one I own is Fish Have No Feet and I wanna read it soon. I’m not sure about picking Fever Dream though… it’s the other one who caught my attention and I’ll be able to read it in the original language but I’ve heard mixed things

    1. Yes, the setting was particularly interesting. I would have enjoyed the chapters more had I read them as pieces in a literary magazine. Overall it did not work as well as I imagined it would

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