Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 19, 2019

Home is Nearby, by Magdalena McGuire

This book fits into of my favourite categories, ‘Art in Fiction’ but Home is Nearby is much more than that.  Shortlisted for the 2019 NSW Premier’s Multicultural Award this novel is an homage to the importance of art in our lives, but it’s also a tale of displacement and the journey towards making a new home; and it’s a powerful evocation of life in a totalitarian society as well.

This is the blurb:

1980: The beginning of the Polish crisis. Brought up in a small village, country-girl Ania arrives in the university city of Wroclaw to pursue her career as a sculptor. Here she falls in love with Dominik, an enigmatic writer at the centre of a group of bohemians and avant-garde artists who throw wild parties. When martial law is declared, their lives change overnight: military tanks appear on the street, curfews are introduced and the artists are driven underground. Together, Ania and Dominik fight back, pushing against the boundaries imposed by the authoritarian communist government. But at what cost?

The Polish crisis to which this blurb refers is the time when Soviet forces imposed martial law in order to suppress the Solidarity (Polish Trade Union) movement led by Lech Wałęsa. The trigger for this mass movement was stagnant wages and price rises, and at first the Polish government allowed its existence.  Solidarity was, at the time, the only trade union not controlled by the Communist Party, and it advocated for workers’ rights and social change.  However, when its aims emerged as anti-Soviet with a republican agenda, there was a government crackdown and some years of repression before there was any reform.  But readers don’t need to know much of this to enjoy the book: it’s enough to know that the young students in the novel were courting serious trouble from the authorities with their activities.

Ania learns the skills of sculpture from her father, who makes cemetery memorials in their village, and though she is his only child, he encourages her to take all the opportunities that come her way, so she takes up a scholarship to study art at the University of Wroclaw.  There, while she struggles to find her own unique artistic style, she falls in love with a writer called Dominik, and she leads the kind of bohemian life we associate with being at university in the 1970s.  She parties hard, and she meets all kinds of interesting people.  But some of these fall foul of the authorities, and Dominik in particular writes material that’s considered inflammatory.  As the repression tightens, Ania and her friends begin to consider leaving so that they can express themselves—but they are too naïve to realise that it’s not just a case of wanting to read, write and make art as they please… They are shocked when police brutality and imprisonment turn out to be far more serious than they had expected.

Ania faces a dilemma that’s common in these situations: should she leave and fulfil her potential, or should she stay no matter the risks because she loves her country and the father she loves?  The authorities are experts at bringing pressure to bear…

The book is written in three parts: Fire, Steel and Water, and it’s in the third section that Ania arrives at a migrant hostel in Brisbane and tries to make a new life.  McGuire paints a vivid picture of this disorientating experience and Ania’s conflicting emotions:

I settled on a bench that overlooked the murky water and slapped insects from my legs as a man and a woman in flimsy shorts jogged past, offering me their smiles. I wondered what Father would make of this place, with its insistent cheer, its abundance of heat and light.  It was beautiful, there was no doubt about it.  But nothing here was mine.  I longed to be back in familiar surroundings, where I could say That was the forest where Father and I used to collect mushrooms. Or, That was the park where Dominik kissed me, his ink-stained fingers linked with mine. (p.207)

When she regains her composure, she tries to sketch what is before her, but it is too different: there was too large a gap between what I saw in my head and what transpired on the page. 

Her hostel friend Rahel from Hungary (with whom she connects through their mutual language, French) is soon ready to move on, but Ania is despondent:

Ever since I was a child, I had made things. I longed to be the way I was before, always learning through my hands.  But I didn’t have that now.  Art had abandoned me in this country.  It was like losing the deepest and most private part of myself – the worst type of exile. Without art, I didn’t know who I was. (p.212)

But things move on as they tend to do, and a new life begins to emerge despite the frustrations.  There is a #MeToo moment where a man who’s got it badly wrong gains redemption; and there is the disconcerting experience of encountering Australians who know nothing about what’s happening in the rest of the world. When her Australian friend Carla starts talking about Brisbane being ‘a police state’ when students and their teachers are arrested for nudity in a theatre performance, Ania nearly laughs: The streets in Brisbane were lined with palm trees, not army tanks. 

Sometimes it does take fresh eyes to interpret reality like this.  IMO Ania has it both right and wrong because Queensland wasn’t a Soviet State with tanks in the street and its brutal repression of dissidents.  But we who remember Queensland under Joh Bjelke-Petersen also know that there were fundamental freedoms denied to its residents under the palm trees, and it is vitally important that citizens like Carla be alert to infringements of their civil rights.  Perhaps this incident in the book is a way of showing that sometimes migrants who’ve fled repressive regimes compare where they are with where they’ve been and become complacent about the potential for similar repressions to arise in their new home.

Home is Nearby is a most interesting book that deserves more attention than it has had.  Perhaps because it is published in the UK, it doesn’t seem to be readily available here in Australia, and your best bet seems to be the Book Depository or buying it directly from the publisher, see the link below.

PS There is a terrific book trail here that shows the sites in Wroclaw – I wish I knew how to do this for books set in places I’ve never been to…

Author: Magdalena McGuire
Title: Home is Nearby
Publisher: Impress Books, (Innovation Centre, University of Exeter, UK), 2017, 288 pages
ISBN: 9781911293149
Source: Yarra Plenty Library by Inter-library loan, with thanks to Bayside Library


Responses

  1. Interesting post. It’s always good to read ‘outsider’ accounts of one’s own territory – especially when they’ve had bad experiences in their own home countries. Your point about the dangers of their becoming complacent about perceived injustices by their new neighbours is pertinent. They can often provide much needed perspective to our own views, but can also benefit themselves from the point of view of those among whom they’ve found a new life. Recent terrible events among newly arrived immigrants in NZ provide sad evidence of this, and the importance of learning from each other and accepting each other sympathetically.

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    • Indeed, Yes, Simon, the shock here is visceral: everyone is subdued and numb. It reminds me of the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania. That was not a hate crime but a desire for notoriety, but the feeling of an irreparable loss was the same. It triggered our strict gun laws, but it’s a constant battle to prevent them being watered down.
      I was a migrant of one sort or another for most of my childhood, always observing the new and comparing the old, and I consider myself enriched by it. But one thing I learned fast: you don’t criticise the new. No, you keep that to yourself!

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  2. I’ve bought this – and will come back and read it when I find time to read it!! I love the cover.

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    • Where did you find it, Sue?

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      • Book depository I’m afraid. But there weren’t many sources as you say.

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      • Or Booktopia? I’m away from home so can’t check!

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        • Probably not Booktopia, I looked there and they didn’t have it.

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          • Actually it was Booktopia – I am home now and I left the slip in the book. The book’s not there now though – I agree – as I’ve just checked. I must have just lucked out. I ordered it on 5 March.

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  3. I am familiar with most new books that come out and hadn’t heard of it. I love books that have art and photographers in it too. I tend to shy away from books that have other themes such as the taking over of areas by communist regimes. I get so angry it puts me off my reading. However this book sounds like it is much more than that. I know one can’t compare one’s old country with that of the new as you mentioned. On a funnier note the only comparison I make is in regards to the weather. Tadmanians think it is cold in Tassie but having grown up in Michigan they don’t know what cold is. It happens in every area and being quiet about more serious comparisons is indeed a good idea. Haha

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    • Silence is golden, as they say!
      I think you would find the art really interesting in this one, because it describes her way of thinking as a kind of window into understanding contemporary sculpture. I don’t know if you’ve read Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth but I loved that because it features an eccentric cranky drunken painter who has amazing ambitions for his art, which always requires appropriating some large wall somewhere that the owner would rather keep pristine. (Joyce Cary was writing before the scourge of graffiti was common, I think). The reader can imagine all the weird images and understand why the painter has done it that way. Well, this is the same: you can imagine all the strange bits and pieces assembled together into some weird artpiece, and understand why it’s been constructed that way.

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  4. Thanks for this for this wonderfully insightful review, Lisa! I really loved reading it. And yes, I totally agree with your comments re Ania’s dismissal of the situation in 1980s Brisbane. Sometimes it can be hard for outsiders to see the pitfalls of the new environment they’re living in, especially if everything looks beautiful on the surface, as it often does in Australia.

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    • Hello Magdalena, thanks for dropping by, and thank you for writing such a terrific book:)
      Sometimes that faith is the new country is a little naïve, but other times it’s a beautiful thing to see. I used to teach children whose parents had fled dictatorships and they were ecstatic when they’d taken out citizenship and were able to vote for the first time in their lives. My school won an award for teaching the children how to teach their parents about Australia’s voting system:)
      It was quite chastening for us as teachers to see how something we took so much for granted (voting) was a freedom that was cherished by the newcomers.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sounds like you did some amazing work in your teaching life, Lisa. Voting is something we often take for granted here, isn’t it. Nice to get a reminder of how important it is.

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        • Indeed yes. And *wink* some elections we look forward to!

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Great review.

    We should always remember that most immigrants leave their country because they felt they had no other choice. It’s never easy to leave one’s home behind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed yes, I get homesick just being away on holiday for a few weeks…

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  6. […] Eileen Chong  see Jonathan’s review at Me Fail? I Fly Home is Nearby by Magdalena McGuire (see my review) Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home by Sisonke Msimang  see my review Too Much Lip […]

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