The city is Lviv. The house with the stained-glass window is an architectural treasure. The four generations of women living in it are steeped in the setting’s rich and deeply troubled history. And so begins Żanna Słoniowska’s magnetic debut novel. Ukrainian-born, Słoniowska has settled in Cracow, Poland, and published The House with the Stained-Glass Window in Polish. It won the esteemed Znak Publishers’ Literary Prize and the Conrad Prize for first novels. It was shortlisted for Poland’s most prestigious literary award, the Nike (not to be confused with the sports brand), a respected recognition. Translated seamlessly into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, the book is one of those historical novels that manages to encapsulate a century of socio-political hopes and upheavals in Ukraine’s most famous city by portraying the private and intimate lives of a single family, specifically the women who shaped its core.
“I remember that on that particular day Great-Granma was ‘having hysterics’, in other words lying in bed and loudly sobbing”, her great-granddaughter, our narrator tells us. “Days like this occurred since time began, and weren’t necessarily proceeded by any kind of nasty incident. ‘It’s to do with the past,’ Aba would explain… I imagined ‘the past’ as uncontrollable, intermittent blubbering.”
Aba remembers how Great-Granma’s husband, her father, was one of the “people who started to vanish from the flats in our house”. She was awake when they came for her Papa: “He kissed me goodbye, and said it was an error, he’d be back soon, while two men stood waiting for him in the doorway. I never saw him again,” Aba recalls and her granddaughter knows exactly what it means to lose a parent to historical forces. Her mother, Aba’s daughter, the renowned opera singer Marianna is assassinated.
The novel opens with her final moments: “On the day of her death, her voice rang out, drowning many other, raucous sounds. Yet death, her death, was not a sound, but a colour. They brought her body home wrapped in a large, blue-and-yellow flag – the flag of a country that did not yet exist on any map of the world.” But it soon would, the country that we know today as Ukraine, in which Marianna’s daughter tries to carve out a space for herself.
The young woman’s intuition tells her “to be beware of people who can change your memories.” One of them is Mykola, her mother’s married lover with whom she, too, begins an affair after Marianna’s death.
Słoniowska is a noteworthy storyteller with the remarkable ability to evoke an entire era with a few simple images. The Lviv of her narration – “this city, worn out by history” –becomes the fifth main character of the book, along with the women who make it their own despite the demanding circumstances they face. The English translator provides us with a short, useful introductory note on the history of the region to familiarise the reader with the broader context. The House with the Stained-Glass Window is beautiful and announces a great talent on the international literary scene.
The House with the Stained-Glass Window
by Żanna Słoniowska
Maclehose Press Editions, 2017
Review first published in the Cape Times on 19 October 2018.