‘The House with the Stained-Glass Window’ by Żanna Słoniowska (Review)

Even within such events as Women in Translation Month, I often attempt to organise my reviews according to mini-themes, with a week’s posts having some underlying connection.  However, while this usually involves books from the same country, or a period of history, this week’s choice is slightly different.  In this first full week of #WITMonth, I’ll be reviewing three books from different countries, which have little in common except for one crucial detail…

…they all have the word ‘house’ in the title 😉

*****
Żanna Słoniowska’s The House with the Stained-Glass Window (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) is set in the Ukrainian city of Lviv and centres on four generations of women living in an apartment during a tumultuous time in their country’s history.  The story is narrated by the youngest of the women, with the first pages describing the funeral of her mother Marianna, an opera singer turned activist shot by a sniper at an anti-Soviet rally.  She becomes a martyr for the cause of independence, and the march to the cemetery becomes an excuse for the people to unleash their frustration and anger:

“Shame on Marianna’s assasins!” someone shouted.
“Shaaaame!” a thousand voices bellowed back.
“Shall we avenge her death?”
“We swear to avenge it!”
As though to confirm these words, the men with fishing rods cautiously began to shake them, revealing the proscribed blue-and-yellow flags attached to them.
p.18 (MacLehose Press, 2017)

What follows… well, I’m sure you can imagine (it doesn’t end well for the people…).

Cleverly, though, the writer uses this starting point to take us forwards and backwards in time.  The young girl of the first pages is shown as a university student in the post-Soviet era, walking the streets of a run-down city in the company of her mother’s old lover.  However, other chapters have her accompanying her mother to the theatre, where she watches rehearsals and roams around backstage, with the stories she hears from the older women taking her (and us) even further back into the history of both the family and the city.

As the novel progresses, we learn more about the nameless narrator’s family, consisting of Great-Granma, the elderly matriarch, her gentle daughter Aba, a woman suffering from chronic pains and thwarted dreams, as well as the headstrong, wilful opera singer Marianna, a woman who (unlike her mother) refuses to be controlled.  There’s an absence of men, initially, at least, but gradually, almost in passing, their stories are told, too.  The one exception is Mykola, who carries his relationship with the family over two generations (as we later learn, this isn’t the first time this has happened…).

As much as the book explores the family, though, The House with the Stained-Glass Window is just as much, if not more so, about the city, one with many faces, and names.  Lloyd-Jones sketches out its history in a preface, explaining how it moved from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to post-WWI Poland, before later being integrated into the Soviet Union and finally (?) forming part of independent Ukraine.  The city has also had different names at different times, and the translator brings this across into English, using the Polish (Lwów), Russian (Lvov) and Ukrainian (Lviv) names depending on the setting of the chapters.  Like many European cities, it’s a multi-cultural crossroads, yet it’s far from a melting pot, with strict boundaries between the different ethnic groups.

Lviv is in many ways the most prominent character in the book, and the narrator spends whole chapters walking the streets.  The writer, who was born here, lovingly describes the buildings and monuments her creation passes, left over from earlier eras, but also chronicles the decay and disfigurement brought about by societal changes, with ugly additions plastered onto beautiful buildings.  The window of the title, a stunning stained-glass artwork running from the top to the bottom of the narrator’s apartment building, symbolises the history and culture at risk of being lost.  When independence comes, it brings ruin in its wake, disappointing many.

Another important theme of the book is identity, and this is often expressed through choice of language.  Like the city itself, this can be fluid, and in the narrator’s own family, several are used: Great-Granma uses Polish for prayers; Aba mainly speaks the Russian of the family she married into; while Marianna’s sudden switch to Ukrainian reflects the changing times.  Identity is also reflected through names, and it’s noticeable that some are only learned after the characters’ deaths.  Interestingly, the narrator remains anonymous throughout, perhaps suggesting that her story still has a long way to go.

It’s all interesting enough, yet I’m not convinced it’s entirely successful.  While many ideas are included and attempted, there’s never a sense that the book really coalesces into an effective story.  At times, it feels as if the writer wants to make the setting dirty and squalid; in other places there are fleeting dreams and magical-realism elements; elsewhere, the focus appears to be on the family.  Yet none of these elements really seems to be fully developed, and the frequent jumping around in time seems to hinder rather than assist the book.  It’s a little frustrating as there’s definitely a good story there, but one that never quite seems to come together.

It’s a shame as Słoniowska has chosen a fascinating subject, a city switching between cultures and countries and a family living through tough times, and when she does get it right, there’s a wonderful sense of history being written as you watch:

Present time had become soft and warm – the stone pillars supporting it were melting like wax.  The past was being rewritten – every single day more of the falsehoods supporting the old sytem were refuted.  It felt as though the future, fresh and different, were within arm’s reach – as though we were sailing on a ship from whose deck we could see a wonderful island, so clearly that we could distinguish the colours of the flowers growing there.  In this new land everything was bound to work out well!  And how could it be otherwise, when evil had been conquered, the fetters were broken, and the prison gate was standing open? (p.37)

Alas, this optimism rarely lasts, and the final pages show the narrator taking part in yet another demonstration, hoping that next time everything will change for the better.  Sadly, as events in recent years have shown, this is a country where borders and boundaries are far from set in stone, and we fear that she is destined to be disappointed once more.

4 thoughts on “‘The House with the Stained-Glass Window’ by Żanna Słoniowska (Review)

  1. I read the book in the French translation, where the title is about the town (Une ville à cœur ouvert), not about the house, and like you I noted that it was also just as much about the family. Overall I liked the writing and the structure, but I agree with you that something was missing to bring the various elements really together. Is “Mykola” the man linking Marianna and her daughter? In my French edition he’s called “Mikołaj”, I wonder why.

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    1. Passage à l’Est! – Yes, that’s the same person. I suspect that the publisher thought Anglophone readers would struggle with the ‘ł’ and with the pronunciation of the ‘-aj’ ending 😉

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      1. Or maybe (now that I think about it) the answer is that Mikołaj is the Polish version of the name and Mykola the Ukrainian, and either the translators used different source texts, or it is indeed an editorial choice. I feel I have to investigate now!

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        1. Passage à l’Est! – Well, it’s Mykola throughout in my version (maybe the original uses both for the different times…).

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