The House with the Stained-glass Window by Żanna Słoniowska (transl. Antonia Lloyd-Jones): A tale of three cities

Cover imageŻanna Słoniowska’s novel is set in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, known as Lwów when it was part of Poland after the dissolution of Austria-Hungary, then Lvov when it was in Soviet hands from the end of the Second World War until 1991. The House with the Stained-Glass Window tells the story of this fractured, fractious, beautiful place through the lives of four generations of women whose history mirrors that of the city.

Marianna is a mezzo-soprano with a voice so evocative that it summons up the very spirit of his country for Mykola, the set designer at the Lviv Opera. She’s the child of Aba who arrived in the city from Leningrad shortly after the war, her artistic ambitions thwarted by the tyrannical Great-Granma whose hysterics frequently rock the house. Marianna has a daughter who guides us through the history of these four generations. Great-Granma has seemingly never got over the abduction of her husband in 1937, taken for interrogation and never returned. Having fallen out with both Aba and Marianna, she’s taken to her room. In 1988, shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union, Marianna is shot by a sniper while singing at a nationalist march, swiftly becoming the poster girl for the independence movement. Aba steps in to raise her young daughter who will navigate her own way through the thorny pathways of both her family’s history and that of her city, helped by Mykola who was both her mother’s lover and the chronicler of Lviv’s unofficial history. That will have to stand as a synopsis for this novel although it’s a good deal more complicated than that.

Mariana’s daughter unfolds the story of this family who live on the first floor of a house whose stained-glass window encapsulates Lviv’s history. She’s a lively narrator – wildly imaginative and very funny at times – open to Mykola’s history lessons, the last of which is a tour of Lviv telling the stories that some of its inhabitants might prefer untold. Stuffed with lovingly vivid descriptions of the city, Słoniowska’s novel has a framework which works well although the occasional abrupt switches from one timeline to another can be disconcerting. You’ll need to have your wits about you to keep track – Antonia Lloyd-Jones’ brief chronology and explanatory note which preface the book comes in very handy for that. It’s a novel that worked for me but it’s a little niche. If you’re not interested in Central Europe and its history, I suspect it’s not one for you.

If you don’t hear from me on Friday I’ll be in Budapest, a little closer to Lviv than I am now. H is in the midst of an Aged P crisis which may mean I’m still here in Bath. We’ll see. The odds are currently in our favour…

17 thoughts on “The House with the Stained-glass Window by Żanna Słoniowska (transl. Antonia Lloyd-Jones): A tale of three cities”

  1. I think this may be one for me. Immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall I was working in a College that went on to forge close links with similar teacher training institutions in Eastern Europe, including one not far from Budapest where they were struggling to deal with the fact that their second language went from Russian to English practically over night and their primary students had to be prepared to teach it for 45 minutes a day to children from six onwards asap. I really enjoyed working with the lecturers and students who came over to study with us and have been interested in Eastern Europe ever since.

  2. What a gorgeous cover. I suspect I don’t have the interest in European history that you think necessary, though.

    I’ll be in your neck of the woods tomorrow evening for an event at Bookbarn. Hope you manage to make it off on your holiday.

    1. It’s lovely, isn’t it, and a clever device in the novel but I think that’s best avoided if you’re not particularly interested in the area.

      Thank you. Things are looking hopeful to the extent that I’ve been ogling a few Budapest cafe websites. Have fun at Bookbarn. I’m guessing you won’t go home empty-handed…

      1. The setting, mostly. For the past two years now I’ve been meaning to read more literature set in and from Eastern/Central Europe. One of these days, I’ll just have to sit down and start reading… 🙂

  3. I hope the crisis eases, for the good of all. This sounds like an interesting read. I like the idea of stained glass being used as a motif; it has such promise, including beautiful cover art!

  4. I really like the sound of this. Did you mention it on Twitter? Or was it mentioned for #WIT month? I cannot remember. But the name of the novel sounds so familiar. I like that the descriptions of the city are given so nicely and vividly

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