Title: Home Is Nearby
Writer: Magdalena McGuire
Publishing House: Impress Books
Date of Publication:November 1st 2017
Rating: 5 stars
*As always, any political comments will promptly receive the axe.*
‘’Martial law was for our own good, the government said. They said we all had to make sacrifices. And we would all be safer as a result.’’
One of the few certain things my 32 years on Earth have taught me is that I should never trust someone who says a) that something is for my own good, and b) that everyone has to make sacrifices. Especially when the aforementioned ‘’someone’’ is a man (or a woman) in power. Mainly, politicians and army officers. My next stop in a bizarre string of depressing, yet highly powerful, reads reaffirmed this view.
The story is set in Poland and specifically in Wroclaw. Wroclaw is a beautiful city I intended to visit in 2009 but life decided otherwise…Anyway…We follow Ania, a young sculptor, who decides to leave her village behind and move to the big city to pursue her dreams. There, she meets a small but fervent community of aspiring artists. Painters, writers, directors who have to cope with their demanding studies and fight against oppression and totalitarianism by foreign and domestic forces alike.
The way the story is told is extremely interesting and powerful. The novel opens in December 1981 and the night Martial law is declared in the country. Then, we are briefly transported in 1980, as Ania makes the transition from a rural community to Wroclaw and her meeting with Dominik, a young writer who introduces her to his circle of bohemians. The background is incredibly vivid and McGuire waves quite a few symbolisms into the plot. What looks like a simple story becomes an intricate journey to a woman’s progress in life and to a country’s ordeal. Wroclaw is a city built in a mix of Gothic architecture and Art Nouveau style, a city of variety and character, just like Ania’s new social circle. Ania’s father makes headstones, he is a kind of sculptor of the macabre, a man whose art is connected to loss and remembrance, both themes that permeate the narration.
Memorial For People Hiding Underground During Martial Law In Wroclaw, Poland 1981 (iamge source: http://sadmoment.com/memorial-for-people-hiding-underground-during-martial-law-in-wroclaw-poland-1981/
‘’We want our dignity.’’
The political situation in Poland is paramount in the course of the story, although Ania’s feeling and problematizations lie at its heart. I deeply appreciated the fact that McGuire succeeds in creating a very balanced depiction avoiding melodramatization and hysterics, using raw, powerful language when necessary. She writes with honesty, bravery and sensitivity. I was very interested in the way she inserted the crucial issue of censorship in the story. How can someone work when expression isn’t allowed? When we are unable to express ourselves the way we wish to, how can we hope to understand the others? This is a world of constant surveillance. You are forced to attend ‘’parades’’ and sign a paper that proves you were there. Telephone calls are monitored. If the operators decide that you speak in imaginary codes, you will be persecuted despite your age or social status. And, in truth, what status can ever exist in such circumstances? What kind of dignity?
McGuire fully transports the reader to Poland. The customs, the food, the language, the culture of a fascinating, tormented country, the way of thinking. The cultural and historical tidbits of the 80s make the reading experience even more lively. From the horrifying attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II and Lech Wałęsa’s rise in the political scene of the country to the cinematic release of Coppola’s ‘’Apocalypse Now’’, the jazz clubs and the rising of the punk music scene. These scenes provided balanced distractions because the days following the declaration of martial law create a dark background. They reminded me of the events my parents often describe to me about the dictatorship imposed on Greece in 1967 when the country faced a similar nightmare that lasted 7 years until the return of Democracy in 1974.
‘’Art from behind the Iron Curtain.’’
I felt that McGuire presented her characters through the themes of Art and Resistance. In a totalitarian state, Art becomes a form of resistance, a way to remain alert. Love can be seen as a form of survival, a source of hope and light. However, there are times when love can turn into an equally oppressing force and this is apparent here. I cannot begin to describe my admiration for Ania. She is a complex, realistic character whose fears and doubts are shared by any 20-year old who tries to find a calling and a place in the world. She is a beautiful character and I truly admired the way McGuire made her stand on her own two feet and get rid of the garbage-people in her life. Malgorzata is the other strong female character of the novel. Free-spirited, unafraid of her sexuality, unwilling to conform. Dominik, on the other hand, is completely unlikeable. He deserves no love or admiration. A pompous megalomaniac who poses as a rebel by playing it safe. A man who wants to manipulate everyone and everything. An utterly disgusting creature.
Not much more to add. This is a novel that deeply resonated with me through the scenery, the themes, the marvellous main character, even if the dialogue was a little choppy at times. A beautiful, intricate debut, an important story in an exciting city.
‘’A fish transformed into a bear by the shadow of a black sun. Nearby, a goblin wrenched weeds from the earth and a hunter watched from behind an oak, his arrow pulled back on his bow. Around them I painted flowers, their petals and stems more ostentatious than any I’d seen in real life.’’