Author Magdalena McGuire

Book Review: Home is Nearby

30th November 2017

Home is Nearby • Magdalena McGuire

Reviewed by Lisa Botwright

Lured by an art scholarship, a young Polish woman named Ania leaves behind village life, and the father she adores, in order to move to the university city of Wroclaw. Here she meets a group of avant-garde bohemians, including the handsome and principled Dominik, an English student and aspiring journalist.

Ania’s talent is quickly recognised by her stern Professor – (Sometimes I think this class has learned nothing at all,’ sighed Professor Jankowski. His disappointment settled over us like smog. Even so, in my corner of the room I breathed easy) – and we root for her as she grows in confidence and expression. City-life becomes a happy whirl of study, parties and experimental art shows.

Soon, however, the political climate changes and black clouds begin to gather. Martial Law is declared and everyday life becomes increasingly oppressive. Ania and her new friends are forced to choose between freedom of expression and personal safety.

I confess I know little about the Polish Crisis of the 1980s and was intrigued to find out more about this under-explored era, when the Communist Party, I learn, attempted to forcefully stamp out underground agitation for democracy. McGuire skilfully builds the tension – and, seen through Ania’s young and unsophisticated eyes, the ramifications of her friends’ political antipathy become all the more shocking.

Even so, the novel is less about the wider constitutional issues and more about the intricacies of Ania’s personal relationships. Ania is authentic and likeable, but her character is rescued from being too schmalzy by her initial hostility towards the reckless Malgorzata: someone who ultimately ends up being her closest female ally.

The father-daughter bond is drawn with great tenderness: ‘My daughter’s going to University. She’s going to be an artist. A sculptor, like Michelangelo!’. But his pride is tempered with the understanding that he has to gently push his daughter away in order for her to fulfil her talent: ‘We can’t keep our children forever. We might as well hold on to fistfuls of water.’

The central love story between Ania and Dominik is drawn with all the heady passion and frustrating guilelessness of first love. (‘The soft intensity of his kiss made me forget we were standing in an icy street.’). Readers are led to make up their own minds as to whether Dominik’s provocative writing and political defiance are a reflection of his noble values, or ultimately naive and self-defeating.

The most important relationship of all is the one she shares with her beloved homeland. The cultural references are vivid and evocative: from her father’s insistence on calling her słoneczko (little sun), to the warming glasses of Krupnik the friends share, to the unhappy carp swimming in Ania’s bathroom that’s all set to be Christmas dinner – a welcome break from the endless repetition of Gołąbki, a bland cabbage dish.

The weather in Poland may be bleak, the shops may have empty shelves and the government might be violent and corrupt, but it’s Ania’s home: it informs her art, connects her with everything and everyone she loves, and defines the way she sees herself. Could her loyalty ever come into question?

'Home is Nearby' is an informative and well-researched insight into Polish life behind the Iron Curtain, as well as a warm and compelling love story. It explores fulfilment and loss, censorship and enlightenment, against a tense and turbulent backdrop.

Magdalena McGuire was the winner of the Impress Prize for New Writers 2016. 'Home is Nearby' is published by Impress Books and available from all good book shops at £8.99 •

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