When I was seventeen, I moved away from home for the first time and into a dorm at the city college. The year after, I moved into a house with a few friends. We got evicted and moved to another house, and after that one was robbed repeatedly, we moved again. Between moves, I worked, studied (at least nominally), and met what seemed like hundreds of people. Never again would I experience a period like that small, transitory window, where everything brimmed with significance but was bereft of consequence. Emotions coursed so freely and strongly through my body, yet nothing mattered as the ephemera of youth would salve all serious wounds.
This same sense of being radiates from Wioletta Greg’s novel Accommodations, albeit with a darker undercurrent. In the novel, Wioletta, the narrator, moves to the Polish city of Częstochowa in the autumn of 1994 to attend school. Nearly sixty years earlier, Częstochowa was the site of a Nazi massacre, Bloody Monday, in which more than 1,000 people were murdered. As a young woman, Wioletta’s only contact with the massacre is through library books and stories told by an elderly nun, who survived the attack. This woman’s story, and others like it, pepper Wioletta’s narrative, enfolding a charming bildungsroman into the weight of history, tragedy, violence, and loss.
Wioletta’s first lodgings in Częstochowa are at the Vega House, a boarding house in an old factory district. There, she meets Natka, an old family friend and owner of the boarding house. She also meets Waldek, a porter-cum-manager, and two Russian twins named Sergey and Alex. Wioletta goes to school but isn’t so much interested in her studies as she is in the stories of her fellow boarders, such as Waldek’s tales of how Częstochowa used to be, or one of the Russian brother’s opinions on a proper soup or another’s pet crow. In fact, she seems more interested in them and their world than she does herself. During one of the first evenings at Vega House, she describes how, in Waldek’s room, she “sees “dangling cables, the remaining half of a mirror hanging over the sink, the brush, the shaving paste, the pack of Polsilver razors. . . .” These observations come in lieu of any intense investigation into Wioletta’s own feelings, almost as if her interest in others is her way of mitigating any self-analyzation.
Outside of an infrequent mention of someone named Kamil, an old lover Wioletta had at home, we don’t get much of Wioletta, at least not in the first section of the novel chronicling her time at Vega House. It seems odd, at first blush, that the book is set in first person at all. There’s little navel-gazing, little commentary, speculation, subjectivity, or even attitude—all things common to the monolithic “I” in contemporary fiction. Instead, Wioletta is more of an observer, recording the stories of others, but in a distinctly non-ethnographic way. She listens to people in her life because she cares. This stands in slight contrast to Accommodations’s, perhaps, closest analogue, Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, in which the narrator is wry, sometimes even biting, in her recollections and interactions, while Wioletta is gentle, like water pouring into a smooth bowl.
The result is an immense sense of dignity imbued into each of the novel’s characters and their interests. Take, for example, one of the Russian twins describing his encounter with a crow:
At first I thought a crow like that was pretty stupid, that its brain was the same as a chicken or a pigeon. . . . It’s only now I realize, and it’s even scientifically proven, that the intellect of a crow or a raven or whatever is closer to that of a monkey or an ape . . .[the crow] taught me all about that, with her behavior, all the things she figured out how to do.
The careful detail Greg affords the characters allows them to speak for themselves and feel their way through the profound and mundane with benevolent leisure. They speak not so much like friends, but like strangers sharing a train car, where the freedom of anonymity afforded by the situation reveals parts of the self that might otherwise remain shrouded.
Greg has achieved something special here in writing a novel of literary value without feeling literary. Despite the themes at work, Accommodations feels plucked from real life, an artfully curated collage of field recordings that don’t merely act as a device to convey something greater or a means to another end. If your friend told you a story about their life, you wouldn’t ask what it meant, you would simply feel along with them. Likewise, when Wioletta eventually moves out of Vega House and into a convent under mysterious circumstances, religion is treated with the same sincerity. There isn’t irony or literary scaffolding at play. Prayer and devotion are simply what people do. Greg’s treatment of secular and sacred has a pleasing flatness to it; it’s more authentic than exploitative, the same relationship Wioletta has with everyone else.
Because of this, when Wioletta is reprimanded by a nun at the convent for supposedly forcing the mother superior to relive the Bloody Monday massacre, the reader does not fault Wioletta. We know she was just listening; she was curious. Similarly, the reprimanding nun isn’t found to be unjustly cruel. Because Wioletta is such a smart and generous narrator, we know the horror of Bloody Monday, and we know the various ways in which Częstochowa has never recovered. There is no sense of blame. Only a throbbing pulse of life.
When Wioletta isn’t talking to others, she’s still more interested in how the outside world appears than her ability to reshape it. Greg’s prose, tactile and filled with detail, is exceptional in this regard. That said, the one major memory Wioletta embarks upon is perhaps the most carnal of all. In a brief passage toward the end of the novel, Wioletta remembers a scene from her childhood that veers between abuse and love, a complex and tender moment that effectively transforms Wioletta from a person who simply drifts through life without purpose into someone who truly desires something, which in this case, is comfort and a true home—the same thing Waldek wants, or one of the Russian brothers, Natka, or any of the nuns. This transformation, which is really a reframing, gives new context to Wioletta, asking the reader to reconsider what drifting might mean. Do we drift endlessly like a cloud across the sky? Or more like a piece of wood moving from one riverbank to another?
Accommodations is a gorgeous novel, one that expands beyond its slim pages. Following Greg’s previous novel, the heralded Swallowing Mercury, it further cements a major world voice.
About the Reviewer
Kyle Callert is a writer from Detroit. He is assistant fiction editor at Ninth Letter. His website is kylecallert.com