It is two years and more since this pandemic began. In March 2020, it hadn’t knocked Europe out yet, but it was going to very soon. The signs were there.
In March 2020, this book began. It hadn’t knocked me out at first, but it was going to. I adored Wioletta Greg’s earlier books. She’s exactly my age; she grew up where I might have done if my grandparents had stayed in Poland. And now, in this book, her daughter is growing up where I did – in the UK. In darker times.
At first, I was frustrated. Swallowing Mercury (translated by Ela Marcinak) and Accommodations (translated by Jennifer Croft) are tight and fight. This book is looser and more rambling, like the title, Wilcza rzeka/Wolf River. It’s only just out in Polish (in which I read all three of Greg’s autobiographical novels), but I’m sure the English is afoot.
Nobelist and fellow Pole, Olga Tokarczuk, praises Greg’s “intimate biographical prose, hypnotising and unsettling.” Apocalyptic is a given in the context. Add to the mix an unstable housing situation and domestic violence, and it is even more so. I found myself skimming bits because I couldn’t take it. It felt raw – I’d have liked to trim it down and tame it. It is probably far too soon for that – for the reader or the writer.
On and off, Greg has been living out of suitcases all her life. She’s lived through communism, queueing for food when was a child. She can do it again.
But why should she have to?
There’s horror here. Greg takes a heavily pregnant acquaintance to A&E, interpreting for her from Polish. They won’t admit her. This is in the eye of the storm, when there aren’t enough masks for the hospital staff, let alone doctors, or beds. She’s not actually bleeding, she’ll have to go home. I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot in advance, but things get a lot worse before they get better.
There’s humour here, too. Greg meets some absolute characters. A dizzying mix of nationalities and life situations lead to misunderstandings. But it’s precarious. “Settled status” on paper is hardly a reality in post-Brexit Britain. On top of that, remote schooling – or remote sex – doesn’t work in a cramped space with no privacy or WiFi. By now, we all know what it’s like not being able to go outdoors. But not being able to go out because it’s not safe to leave your daughter alone indoors is worse.
There’s hope, though. The Czech woman in the safe house cooks food from home. Like their cuisines, their languages are neighbours. The Czech word for “look” sounds like the Polish word for “admire” (podívaj/podziwiaj). Because of the false friend, Greg finds herself marvelling at her new friend’s cooking.
But the comfort isn’t spread too thick. The new start would be where it ended in most movies. That’s not where the book ends. It’s not over, of course. We’re all still having those days, staring at nothing. Waiting for things to change. For life to get better.