by Magdalena McGuire
“I, Anna Izabela Skowron ‘ ska, do hereby confess.”
I recall as a teenager watching grainy TV pictures of Lech Wałęsa, hero of Poland’s labour movement and head of the trade union group Solidarność (Solidarity), publicly addressing striking workers. At the time, the country was one of the least oppressive states in the Soviet Bloc, but things changed in 1981 when martial law was imposed by the authoritarian government and citizens were persecuted in order to crush political opposition.
The novel begins with a group of students in a modest apartment in the western Polish city of Wroclaw. It is the first night of the enforced 10pm curfew and they can see tanks and soldiers “in their green uniforms and fur-trimmed caps” on the streets below. It is here we meet the narrator, Ania, a country-girl on a scholarship at the Academy of Arts, and her boyfriend Dominik, a talented student of journalism, as they smoke a joint and listen to the punk rock band Deadlock with their bohemian, party-going friends.
From this night forward, nothing will ever be the same for this promising young sculptor and her social group. Intellectuals and artists, along with thousands of opposition activists, are jailed without charge; civilian phonelines are tapped and monitored by government agents; a six-day working week is imposed and dozens of people are killed.
Home Is Nearby is an impressive debut from Magdalena McGuire, an award-winning Australian writer and researcher. Born in Poland but raised in Darwin, she paints a vivid picture of the turbulent political events taking place at the start of the new decade, and the demoralizing effects of living under a surveillance state where people are actively encouraged to mistrust each other.
Published by Impress Books (UK), McGuire’s first long fiction publication was apparently inspired by her own family’s life in the old country, with many parallels between her mother’s experiences and those of her protagonist. I was delighted to discover, before the story starts, we are provided with a brief but useful lesson on Polish pronunciation, in which she assures us that the language “tends to be consistent (unlike English, which has many exceptions).”
Not only is this book a well written, credible and poignant portrait of everyday life for Poles during the crisis, it also reflects the solace of art in politically difficult times; the personal cost of pushing back against boundaries put in place by a totalitarian regime; the strength of character required to restart one’s life alone in a strange land; and the myriad links between Poland and Australia.
Many thanks to Impress Books for providing an advance review copy of this title.