A work of unadorned beauty.
It’s the early 80s in Poland. Under Soviet control, Warsaw is a full of brutal apartment blocks and enormous queues for basic food and services.
Against this unlikely backdrop, university student Ludwik meets the enigmatic Janusz and they begin an affair. Although homosexuality is not technically illegal, it is frowned upon by authorities, so the two have to conduct their romance in secret. Adding to this stress is the fact that Ludwik is gradually becoming disillusioned with the government, whilst Janusz seems content with life under the Party and somewhat defensive of the regime. Matters become further complicated when the two makes friends with siblings who are the children of a wealthy, senior Party member.
Jedrowski paints a detailed and uncompromising portrait of a country under burgeoning totalitarian rule yet he never descends into predictable chest-thumping. There is love for Poland and in particular, Warsaw, writ large over this work. There is also love for the people who make the most of extreme circumstances.
Swimming in the Dark is both harsh and gentle. Each character, no matter how peripheral to the main narrative, is drawn with exquisite detail. Landscapes, both rural and urban, become more than mere background, taking on a life of their own. Jedrowski never wastes a single word. The writing is spare, yet rich. It is a work of unadorned beauty, somewhat like the Stalinist architecture of Warsaw.
Exploring issues of love and loyalty, it never loses sight of its first job, which is to tell an engaging story. As a first novel, it is a breathtaking achievement.
Reviewed by Tracey Korsten
Distributed by: Bloomsbury Australia
Released: March 2020