A Long Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka

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A Long Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A fine mix of 1930s rural Poland and 1990s post-Communism Poland, really letting us delve into a history of the country and the people involved, with some perfectly judged comedy and plenty of serious emotion.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: August 2009
Publisher: Sceptre
ISBN: 978-0340920138

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How would you woo the loveliest girl in the region, if you were called Pigeon by everyone, and lived in the Polish mountains in the 1930s? You would, it seems, go to her father and offer to completely rebuild his cottage. You would give it the Best Roof Anyone Had Ever Seen This Side of the Oversleeping Knight (a local hill people are finding a bit unreliable), a new garden wall, a new cellar, even windows. And eventually you might find the whole season's work works.

With Pigeon and Anielica set to be paired off, it's a bit of a surprise that her brother gets married to his own beau first. But things aren't going to go completely swimmingly. Did you not notice – Poland, the 1930s?

This story is alternated every second chapter with Poland in the 1990s, fresh from the end of Communism. A girl disparagingly called Baba Yaga lives with a family friend and her daughter in Krakow, where she works in a bar by night and as a servant to a vain grande dame from a more cultured age by day. There's a bit of a love story here too, as well as an insider's look at the turning nature of the whole country, with its instantly-formed love/hate affair with Western tourists, the changing feel of all the cafes from their status as hideaway for revolutionary thinkers to westernised disco joints, and more.

One might get a little fed up of reading novels that alternate between two different story strands, but when they are as good as this I think I can stick with them. The rural 1930s story has a brilliant style – lightly and spryly quirky – capitalising superlatives such as the one in my opening paragraph, and full of sentences such as after all, countless generations of Poles have managed to procreate despite their noses. It opens up an isolated valley, the tiny settlement called a Half-Village, and shows us the thinking and actions of the few inhabitants with a joyous ease.

I also found a lot to enjoy in the even-numbered chapters, with their firm, strong characters – the first-person narrator and the females that surround her, from the girl at work wishing to disappear and become an au pair abroad, to the stubbornness of the older women – her mistress and the owner of where she lives. The last's relationship with her daughter is a lovely and catty bickering, and if you get only one thing out of this book it will be some Polish swear-words.

Eventually most of the humour disappears, and it is indicative of the ease of reading this book that we get a potted history of the whole country, more or less, through the brilliantly formed characters. You are aware that the wholesome, rustic truisms are replaced by the bitterly addressed Soviet slogans and all that the people have learnt through decades of having to wrangle (or zalatwic”) bribes, benefits and perks from others. I say you are aware, but it's the story to the fore and nothing of the moral thrust or point of the whole book is ever more than lightly given us.

I did find myself wishing I had a Polish person on hand to share this book with (what's new? Their lasses are gorgeous!), just to check things over. But I certainly found myself taken back to a Krakow I could recognise, and I'm sure the personnel of the book have only gained in entertainment factor what they might ever have lost for any artifice. While the book has such a lovely comedic approach (chapter 17 has two real snorters in), it never loses sight of the painful truths of the families it gives us, from those recent changes to the hiding from the Nazis.

For a book with a grounding in the gently oddball that turns dark in an equally perfect way, and a strong story completely matching the telling and teller, Polish or otherwise I recommend this book to you.

We must thank the publishers for our review copy. Dzieki.

For more of Poland we can recommend The Last Supper by Pawel Huelle.

Buy A Long Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Long Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka at Amazon.co.uk


Buy A Long Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Long Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka at Amazon.com.

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