The House with the Stained-Glass Window by Zanna Sloniowska and Antonia Lloyd-Jones (translator)
|The House with the Stained-Glass Window by Zanna Sloniowska and Antonia Lloyd-Jones (translator)|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Matthew Wilson|
|Summary: A touching and honest novel about life as a young woman at the end of the Soviet era. Its characters inhabit a city of confused identities, negotiating the pain of the past and the aspirations that the future holds.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 240||Date: September 2017|
|Publisher: MacLehose Press|
Marianna, an opera singer in the soon-to-be Ukrainian city of Lviv, is mistakenly shot dead at a political rally in the dying days of the Soviet Union. This novel begins with both anger and hope, as Marianna's coffin is covered in the illegal blue and yellow flag, and her death seems to herald the birth of a new nation. But the day of her funeral is also the day of her daughter's first period – a girl who must learn how to be a woman in this time of drastic change, with no mother to guide her along the way.
Thankfully, even if this novel begins with death, it is never morbid. Although it is at times tinged with sadness, it is also full of warmth and humour. We follow an eclectic family of women living together in Lviv, spanning four generations. There is Great-grandma: formidable, often terrifying, hardened by her experiences of the Second World War, complete with her folksy superstitions and dismal worldly wisdom. There is Aba (the grandmother), who lives forever in the shadow of the painting career she never pursued, the political activism she gave up and the lover she shunned – all because she was too afraid to disobey her overbearing parent. Then there is Marianna (the mother), a headstrong young woman who did what Aba never could: who pursued her dreams and her desires against her family's wishes. Who risked everything and, in the end, lost. And lastly, there is Marianna's daughter, who enters puberty just as the Soviet Union reaches senility, and must navigate the difficulties of growing up in an era of dizzying newness.
In the 'Translator's note' at the beginning of this book, Antonia Lloyd-Jones makes the rather strange claim that 'One of the characters in this novel is a city, the place that we now call Lviv'. After having finished The House with the Stained-Glass Window, I have to say that I disagree with the translator here. The city (once Polish Lwow, next Soviet Lvov and lastly Ukrainian Lviv) is not a 'character' in its own right, but rather it is all the characters: every person in this book bears the scars of their city, they share the pain of its past and the hope of its future, and they are saddled with its confused identity. Like their city, these people do not know for sure who they are or where they belong. This is a charming and sentimental novel about working out the answers to these questions – a story that tries to explain what it is like to live, to love and to grow up in a city plagued by political turmoil.
So what does this all have to do with a stained glass window? The family lives on the first floor of a small apartment building in Lviv, which contains a remarkable stained glass window that stretches from the ground to the top floor. And this window serves as a metaphor for the kind of storytelling that is both this novel's great strength and, at times, its weakness. The window can never be viewed in its entirety and several pieces of glass are missing from it. Likewise, Sloniowska's novel is fragmentary – it jumps backwards and forwards in time, and one of the joys of reading this book is that we have to try and put all the pieces of the story together on our own. We have to learn about these characters by reassembling small shards of their lives. And just like the dazzling window, Sloniowska offers us a portrayal of womanhood that is colourful, vivid and often truly beautiful. The only pity is that the novel can sometimes feel too disjointed and get lost in its own lyricism. At certain points, the story loses its focus, which is a real shame, because at its best Sloniowska's writing is fluent, enchanting and effortlessly readable.
All in all, though, this is a touching and honest novel about life as a young woman at the end of the Soviet era. I would highly recommend it to anyone who admires beautiful writing and wants to read a story about the difficulties that love, family, and young adulthood can bring – as well as the joys.
For a rather different Polish story about the struggles of growing up in Eastern Europe's darkest days, try Krysia: A Polish Girl's Stolen Childhood During World War II by Krystyna Mihulka and Krystyna Poray Goddu. Antonua Lloyd-Jones also translated A Grain of Truth by Zygmunt Miloszewski and Antonia Lloyd-Jones (translator).
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