Żanna 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…