The Lullaby of Polish Girls offers three different views of growing up Polish. Anna’s family fled Poland when she was young and started a new life in America, so she only experiences her hometown of Kielce in brief summer visits during the 1990s, where she forms lasting friendships with Kamila and Justyna, but spends most of her time in the U.S. pursuing her acting dream. Kamila is insecure, envious of the other two for their confidence or their beauty, but remains ever-optimistic that she’ll eventually get all the things she deserves (particularly the affections of her crush, Emil). Justyna is the cynic of the trio, ever ready to be brutally honest about how she perceives things or even to sabotage things for her friends if it ultimately serves her own interests.
The book presents their teen lives in flashbacks, the other half looking at their lives in the present of 2002. Anna’s career is reaching crisis point just as her relationship with the American Ben is falling apart, Kamila is still reeling from the revelation that Emil (who she has since married) is actually gay, and Justyna has just suffered a fresh tragedy in a life she already barely had control of.
To an extent then it’s almost six short stories that all form the parts of one larger one, three main characters each with their own present-day and flashback chapters, no character or story getting more attention than the others. Dagmara Dominczyk sprinkles Polish phrases liberally through the story, either simply using them when their meaning is obvious without a translation, or immediately translating it quite naturally within the text itself.
‘I can’t wait for next summer. You’ll be my girlfriend.’ Anna gasps quietly into his neck. She will not forget his words: Będziesz moją dziewczyną.
‘And you’re rubbing yourself while you think about her? What, are you a lezbijka, you little perv?’
Ultimately it’s a story about the comfort of friendship, how three women reach the lowest points of their lives but are able to find strength in people they’ve not spoken to in years, because that sort of friendship transcends time. They can argue and even fall out, but when things get really bad they’ll always be there for one another. It adds an air of optimism to what is otherwise three sad stories of people suddenly finding their lives slipping out of their control in ways they never could have foreseen, and which they would have been unable to cope with if they had to try and go through it alone.
As the name suggests, sadness is an enduring theme of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. It’s about a girl named Rose who, just as she is turning nine years old, is suddenly able to taste in food the emotions of the person who prepared it. She makes the discovery upon eating the titular lemon cake, lovingly prepared by her mother, but so full of sadness and dissatisfaction that Rose can’t even pretend to enjoy it.
Many kids, it seemed, would find out that their parents were flawed, messed-up people later in life, and I didn’t appreciate getting to know it all so strong and early.
Food becomes a minefield, exposing Rose to the emotions everybody is trying to hide. The sadness of openly happy people, the rage of the quiet ones and, above all others, her mother’s desperate need for something to fulfil her. Rose learns early on that she can’t explain what is happening to her and finds solace in junk food, snacks and other heavily-processed items, where the human involvement is distant and minimal.
The story jumps around a little but progresses steadily forward in time, as Rose tries to avoid her ability and just exist with her family. Her mother flits from project to project until she finds something that can fill that emptiness within her, and fawns over Rose’s older brother, Joseph. Joseph is brilliant but can’t connect with people, shutting himself away physically and emotionally. Her father, a man who seemed to approach having a family as a life event to tick off his list, has no way to truly communicate with any of them.
The best way I can describe it is just that my father was a fairly focused man, a smart one with a core of simplicity who had ended up with three highly complicated people sharing the household with him: a wife who seemed raw with loneliness, a son whose gaze was so unsettling people had to shove cereal boxes at him to get a break, and a daughter who couldn’t even eat a regular school lunch without having to take a fifteen-minute walk to recover. Who were these people?
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is not a story about powers (there are large portions of the book where Rose’s ability is mostly irrelevant), not of some grand revelation about where the ability comes from or some fated event where everything comes together. Rose’s ability is a means for her to truly see people and to understand that everybody is hiding their real feelings, including herself, and ultimately to realise that knowing the truth doesn’t really enable her to do anything about it. People hide their true feelings even from themselves, and have to work things out in their own way, or they’ll never get help. That’s particularly sad.
Rosemary’s Baby is a creepy story, thanks primarily to how happy Rosemary remains for most of the book. She has the perfect apartment with her loving husband who is on the cusp of his acting career taking off, all of her neighbours are so friendly and helpful, and, above all else, she is pregnant with the baby that her husband has only just decided he wants to have, with one of the best doctors in the city to see her through the pregnancy. Sure, there are some weird events around the building and the neighbours occasionally do some odd things, but all in all things couldn’t be much more perfect for her.
As the reader you can see what Rosemary does not. You know why the apartment was recently vacated, you know why her husband’s career and attitudes have taken a sudden turn, you know why the neighbours are always eager to pop by, taking the place of her existing friends and always bringing specially-prepared food and drinks, you know why the doctor gives the advice that he does, and you know why the pregnancy proceeds in an unusual way.
Rosemary isn’t oblivious so much as she’s just sensible. Whenever she starts to feel like something is off there is always somebody to make her believe she’s being irrational or ridiculous, whenever her old friends grow alarmed or suspicious circumstances always manage to create distance between them and Rosemary, and mostly she doesn’t want to believe the truth because it would be so horrible and fantastical. When the truth makes less sense than the lie it’s so much easier to accept the lie.
When the end does come it’s horrifying and terrible in its implications, but there are no maniacal villains, no snarling monsters or great battles. There are just seemingly-normal, reasonable people doing abnormal, horrible things. They could be anybody, and that’s very unsettling.
“Loneliness is worse when you return to it after a reprieve – like the soul’s version of putting on a wet bathing suit, clammy and miserable.”
Karou (Daughter of Smoke and Bone, 2011)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I am a person who believes in form, in the harmony of order. Where we can, we must give things a meaningful shape. For example—I wonder—could you tell my jumbled story in exactly one hundred chapters, not one more, not one less?
Pi’s story does indeed play out in a hundred chapters, but only through some small element of cheating. Several chapters are just a couple of paragraphs long. One is just two words. Chapter breaks come almost arbitrarily, the next chapter continuing on the same subject. Across thirteen chapters Pi embraces Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam, reflects upon the nature of the divine, how atheists and agnostics view the world, the reaction when it was discovered he was following three separate religions, his request to continue with multiple religions, his parents’ verdict, and the result of that verdict. It’s not really thirteen chapters’ worth of story.
It sounds like a small complaint and in many ways it is, but I like my chapters to be meaty chunks of narrative that advance the story, so for me the book had a very stop-start feel to it, chapters not providing that break or advancement that I expected. It was only upon reading the above quote, which comes right near the end of the book, that the reason for that structure was explained, though I didn’t feel it was justified for that.
“We’re outsiders, you and I, on the periphery. Watching everybody else, pretending we’re just like them but knowing we’re not. The best we can hope for is to find a place where we don’t have to pretend.”
Isaak Sirko (Dexter, 2012)
Ringil Eskiath is one of my favourite characters in all fiction.
In the previous book, The Steel Remains, he was a jaded war hero without a cause, trying to content himself by trading on past glories and bedding any man he could convince to let him do so, until he was recruited into a quest that required his particular skills. The events of that quest left him hollowed out and broken in spite of his victory, and with a hatred of slavery being just about the only thing he is still passionate about.
By the time The Cold Commands begins he has made an enemy of just about every slaver in the Empire and is running out of places to hide, while also having attracted the attention of dark powers he doesn’t understand and doesn’t much care about either. He ends up back in Yhelteth, home of the other two main characters of each book, fellow war heroes Archeth Indamaninarmal and Egar Dragonbane.
However, they both have problems of their own. Egar is sexually and spiritually frustrated, unable to be with the woman he loves and with no purpose in life beyond harassing the local religious zealots. Archeth has received a dire warning of an imminent threat that could bring down the whole Empire, and has to convince the Emperor to launch a major expedition to a place that may not even exist, while also trying to manage Egar’s frustrations and Ringil’s lack of tact or respect for the machinations of empire.
At first it seems like it’s Archeth’s expedition that would be the core of the story, but her plans are overshadowed completely by Ringil and Egar, who manage to upset the tentative balance that is just about keeping the city and the nation from erupting into civil war. In the process they uncover a grave threat much closer to home, and that again needs somebody like Ringil to try and put a stop to it.
More so even than Takeshi Kovacs, main character of Richard Morgan’s brilliant sci-fi trilogy, Ringil is a broken, disillusioned man who knows that his actions won’t much matter in the long run. Like Kovacs though he still tries and he still fights, because what else is there? As long as he’s still alive he’s going to do his damnedest to be an obstacle to anybody who deserves to have their plans thwarted, who seeks to take advantage of people or start a war, because that’s what heroes do. It’s cost him every part of himself, he no longer cares about much of anything at all, but he’s still a hero and he’s a fantastic character for it.