Michalski's novel, winner of Best Fiction from Baltimore's City Paper, is the story of Stanley Polensky and Calvin Johnson, thrown together in the trenches of WWII, their forced intimacy creating an unlikely friendship between the shy Polish boy from Baltimore and the tough Midwestern farmboy. It is also the story of a girl named Ela Zdunk, who lives with her mother outside the small mountain village of Reszel in Poland in 1806. Ela helps her mother find flowers and roots to use in the tinctures and medicines that Barbara sells or trades to the villagers. They, of course, believe she is a witch; they fear her and propitiate her with gifts of food, enabling Barbara and Ela to scrape out a life of sorts. Until the Prussian soldiers come.
At first the stories of Ela, Stanley and Johnson seem to have nothing in common beyond the existence of an herb discovered by Barbara and given to Stanley by his mother as he departs for war. The herb conveys eternal life.
Not long ago, I read with great interest Julian Barnes's, Nothing to be Frightened of, an honest examination of his fear of death, lightened by his wit and learning. Similarly, Nabokov's Speak, Memory is concerned with trying to escape death. He says, almost like an incantation, like a prayer: “Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.”
But what if we do not die? Michalski examines this idea through the interleaved stories of her three main characters: Ela, Stanley and Johnson. Eternal life is a mixed blessing when those around us, those we love, continue to age and pass on. This device, the only fantastical element in a thoroughly realistic novel, underlines the loneliness that is a part of the human condition. Our connections to each other are tenuous at best, but stretched to the breaking point when these characters whom we come to care about try to find the kind of loving relationship where they can feel at home.
Normally I dislike novels that jump around between characters and time periods, but I felt safe in Michalski's hands. She limits each section to one character and time period and provides enough detail to ground the reader instantly at the start of each section. Also, each character's story is told chronologically, which is a comfortingly familiar structure. The remaining slight unease from the dislocation of time and place between sections reinforces the ideas explored in the story.
One factor that usually suffers when moving between a number of separate stories is pacing. It is hard enough in a single narrative to maintain a pace that steadily builds while also having enough variation to hold the reader's interest. How much harder, then, to distribute the pace across three stories. However, Michalski succeeds brilliantly to the point where I had to put aside other responsibilities to race to the end.
Michalski, who has also published several collections of short stories, delivers her tale in prose that seems almost transparent. It is a good mix of natural dialogue, effective description, and brief narrative. Reading it seems as effortless as breathing. The occasional subtle references to other books and stories reward those who recognise them without tripping up those who don't.
The book defies categorization. It's not purely realistic but neither is it science fiction. Perhaps all you need to know is that it is a good read and will—if you allow it—provoke thoughtful and intense conversations with yourself and others about the use we make of our lives and how we touch and care for others. I hope that Julian Barnes reads it because I am sure he will find comfort here.