Recently published by Impress Books, a local Exeter publishing house, Magdalena McGuire’s debut novel also won their Impress Prize for New Writers in 2016, and is a captivating and powerful coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the twentieth-century Communist state. Telling the story of Ania, an art student in Wroclaw, McGuire’s novel paints a vivid picture of what daily life was like for ordinary people under martial law in Poland, which was imposed by the Communist military government between 1981 and 1983, while also exploring the themes of growing up, falling in love, and finding your own place in the world.
When she wins a place to study art at university, Ania is initially reluctant to leave her widowed father behind in their village, and struggles to feel at home in the big city, where she lives in a draughty dormitory. But after meeting and falling in love with the enigmatic and worldly Dominik, a journalism student, and his crowd of arty friends, her life becomes a lot more exciting. But a few months later, everything changes overnight when martial law is imposed upon the country. Citizens are now under a curfew, travel is banned, and artists and writers who resist the state are under the watch of authorities. The novel explores the reactions of Ania and her idealistic friends to the oppressive regime and how they find ways to show resistance through their works of art and their writing, but eventually find themselves coming under suspicion and even in danger. The difficult choices they are then forced to make threaten their friendships and risk destroying Ania and Dominik’s relationship.
Having been born in Poland herself, the author really succeeds in bringing to life the turbulent political events going on in the country during that time, and the unnerving sense of living under a surveillance state, with tensions emerging between certain people who were prepared to collaborate with the regime and those who resisted. Before reading Home is Nearby, I wasn’t aware at all that strict martial law was in place in Poland during this time, essentially cutting the country off from the rest of the world and imposing tight control on its citizens, and it can be easy to forget how recently Communist states were prevalent across Eastern Europe, and how difficult life could be – Ania and Dominik mostly eat cabbage and potatoes because in Wroclaw that’s pretty much all there is.
The novel captures very vividly the intense immediacy of a first love, and how all-consuming such a relationship can be. However, although it is partly a love story, the focus remains on Ania’s personal growth, which is a good thing, as at the start the novel does read a bit like your stereotypical girl-meets-boy rom-com, with the romance between Ania and Dominik seeming over-idealised. It is satisfying for the reader to then see Ania find her own sense of identity independently from him later in the novel. Art, and Ania’s personal journey as an artist, are also very central themes, and it’s interesting to see her develop in this way as a character as she questions what it means to her to be an artist, comparing herself to her friend, the daring and spontaneous Malgorzata, and trying to find her own voice. Ania’s work as a sculptor is one of the ways in which she remains connected to her father, a stonemason, and their close family relationship is explored poignantly throughout the novel.
As indicated by the title, what it means to feel at ‘home’ somewhere emerges again and again throughout the book. McGuire examines what happens to your own sense of identity in connection to your nationality and your homeland comes under question once your country no longer represents ideals that you believe in, with the latter part of the narrative being set in Australia, where Ania ends up as a political refugee. I feel that this idea of belonging or not belonging in your home country because of a certain political situation is definitely something that is still felt today, particularly in the context of Brexit and Trump’s America, and makes the novel feel relevant today.
McGuire deals with some serious subject matter, such as arbitrary imprisonment, violence, homophobia and bereavement, yet the book is also incredibly funny in places, and isn’t too serious a read. I felt like I learnt so much from reading it, not just about Polish history and culture, but also about avant-garde art and art as a means of free expression and resistance. Anyone interested in twentieth-century art or history should definitely read this book, but even if you’re not, it’s a fantastic read with engaging, likeable characters and a story line that grapples with some really interesting questions and moral dilemmas.
– by Nicole Gadras