Polish-born, American-bred – but what if she scrapped all she knew and became something she’s never been before? The story of Zosia who decides to become a Russian to get into the local nightclub becomes a story of rebirth that will be relevant to anyone who has ever gone through a phase that redefined them in a completely unexpected way.
The story is a background for an identity search that Waclawiak explores on many different levels. Zosia migrated to the US after the war, when her parents were looking for the better future outside of the communism-ridden world. She struggles between describing herself as either Polish (she doesn’t speak the language well and doesn’t relate to the Catholic philosophy that her mother is pushing onto her) or American (although her accent in English doesn’t give out her birth identity, and she’s fully adapted to her new homeland). Hiding her joblessness from the family, she tries to figure out her life when she moves to Los Angeles, reading out the bingo numbers to the elderly at nights and trying to make ends meet with the remains of her money. However, she decides to transform into a Russian to fit into the local community that fascinates her: she dyes her hair, starts smoking, and buys new clothes to get into the Twin Palms: a nightclub ran by Russian expats that she finds glamourous.
The language struggles are the key to understanding why she cannot fit into the communities she could be a part of. As she describes her problems with Polish when she had to communicate in her parents’ homeland, we understand that the comprehension is the barrier that holds her back. The situation repeats when she tries to pass as Russian; she doesn’t have even a basic understanding of the language, so ever her ultimate victory ends up as bittersweet.
Waclawiak succeeds at describing the subtle details that define the Central and Eastern European culture, and manoeuvres between the differences skilfully for the Western readers who might not be aware of those subtleties. Such subtle details as mourning the pope John Paul II, who was a massive cultural figure that was not only the Catholic symbol, but also an intellectual and one of the key characters who opposed communism, or a pastiche reference to the leader of the Solidarity (now controversial in many circles) tell the audiences a little bit more about the contemporary cultural heritage of Poland. It will please not only a native Pole but also somebody who tries to understand Zosia’s struggle to find a middle ground between her split national identities.
When the protagonist gets into an affair with the Russian man Lev, the author leaves us with even more questions. Did she decide to seduce him to get to the place she wanted to be in? Was it the loneliness that she tried to fill after a scene she saw in the parking lot of the nightclub? Or was it the need of validation – since, as she says, every American man that ever came to “adore” her eventually left? The descriptions of the relationship descend into a picture of fighting for control – and Lev can do it even by calling her by a diminutive of her newly embraced name, despite her protests.
But that only introduces us to symbolism, which is a strong point of this novel. The fires over Los Angeles, fought by another character that fascinates her, a hippie man that ticks off the sights from his bucket list, are compared to clearing out the stubble for the new seed. The ashes also get an additional meaning; but even the events like browsing baby names for Zosia’s new identity get a new dimension. The rebirth and search for oneself become permanently engraved in the story.
With more and less prominent symbols, Waclawiak builds out the world that might feel strange and incomprehensible at first. Soon enough, however, the powerful need for redefining what Zosia knows awakens the universal dimension to a émigré story. The baffling topic of skipping back to the square one and redefining oneself gains a much broader meaning – and it’s sure to appeal to many people who ever had to shake off their old identity to get themselves out of traumatising stagnation.
Join our Book in the Park conversation: tweet us with your book recommendation at @besidemag or tag @beside_mag in your #bookshelfie on Instagram!