In the later stages of Żanna Słoniowska’s exceptional The House with the Stained-Glass Window, the novel’s narrator is escorted through the Ukrainian city of Lviv by her older lover, Mykola, who promises to show her “a few things that were discarded or forgotten”.
With the right guide – someone who knows where to look – one may glimpse the vestiges of the city’s previous incarnations: the Austro-Hungarian Lemberg, the Polish Lwow, the Soviet Lvov – a rosary of shifting identities, overlapping and intertwining.
This city, still beloved and contested by both Poles and Ukrainians, is the novel’s richest and most complex character. Its story is unlikely to be known by the majority of Anglophone readers, and yet Słoniowska and her translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, rise to the challenge of guiding the reader through the city’s calamitous past and tumultuous present; like Mykola, they peel back the paintwork to reveal the stories beneath.
The novel is also a tale of four generations of women: ethnic Poles drawn into the struggle for Ukrainian independence, whose lives are deeply interwoven with that of their city. “We are like Russian dolls transpierced by a single shot” remarks the narrator. Her mother, a singer at the opera house, dies for the cause of Ukrainian independence from the USSR. “Her voice was born out of her head like Athena from the head of Zeus, and the essence of that voice was abundance and excess”. Indeed, the narrator’s mother’s voice permeates the novel, existing as something personal for the narrator and as something public, belonging both to the revolution and to the opera’s audience. “Mama was much bigger on stage than in life, and frankly speaking, she wasn’t Mama” – this much the daughter is forced to recognise as she grapples with her mother’s dual role as star and martyr, as a possession both of her fans and of the revolutionary cause.
Few writers are capable of combining the personal and the political with as much skill as Słoniowska. By defining the idea of homeland as something “movable” and by creating a space for a unique borderland identity, she delivers a narrative that is vital for our times.
Previewed by Gary Perry
The House with the Stained-Glass Window
by Żanna Słoniowska
translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
published by Maclehose Press (2017)
Gary Perry is Assistant Head of Fiction at Foyles bookshop.