Of the female writers who made their debut in about 2000, Leżeńska is one of the first to try to broaden the range of themes and genres of books aimed mainly at women. But not only; A Stone in the Heart is a psychological drama, in which gender equality applies, because one of the narrative threads is assigned to a man, and the other to a woman.
The story of Dasha and Marcin starts at the moment where most romantic books usually end. The thirty-something-year-old heroes meet at a class reunion, finally declare their long concealed love for each other, but are desperately scared of a permanent relationship. The process of coming to terms with traumatic experiences, failed marriages and a whole heap of other obstacles begins. On top of the psychological barriers there are also geographical ones, because Marcin has been living in the United States for some years, so for him returning to Poland would mean losing everything he has managed to achieve. Nonetheless the lovers overcome most of the obstacles, and the tale seems to be tending towards a banal family idyll. But that is just half the drama, because at this point Pola comes on the scene, Dasha’s teenage daughter. And then fate, which treats the heroes to yet another, this time tragic test of their emotions.
This novel’s greatest virtue is its psychological refinement. Each gesture seems natural, and each sentence sounds like a spontaneous utterance. Leżeńska has taken such great care with the authenticity of her characters and situations that the reader inevitably follows their ups and downs in a state of suspense, which also derives from the fact that one would like to catch them out in some grand, inappropriately “literary” behaviour. But it’s impossible – not only the main protagonists, but all the characters are three-dimensional and credible. Thus the unusual combination of quite trivial dilemmas with real tragedy also becomes credible. The drama is set in a local context, which affects the course of the action, but it also has a universal dimension.
- Marta Mizuro
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
It’s hard to say what I was thinking about as I set off to see Marcin’s therapist. I was worried by that strange conversation about paternity. I guess I knew it was Marcin who was earning for all of us and for everything. I guess I could see he was barely alive, always late with something, always making up for something, from work to home, from home to work, here, there and everywhere, and always the same thing at home. But I too was barely dragging along. I too was giving up on everything. I too had no time for myself. That’s why at the first instance I took the conversation more like permission, an encouragement for Marcin to move away from me. So maybe I wanted to evaluate the scale of the threat, I don’t know.
I drove to see her feeling a bit ruffled, but in the course of the very first conversation I realised I’d been wrong.
It’s not me who knows better, it’s not me who sees more – for the simple reason that I am part of our arrangement and our situation. She, this calm, quiet woman, can see us like the back of her hand; what’s more, for her we are one of many families affected by one crisis or another. She can compare us with others – without making any judgement – in order to show us how we look through the eyes of someone on the outside.
At first I was irritated by her endless questions about what Pola did today, what she learned this week, what we did and how we feel about it. Only after the second meeting did I understand what she meant.
To answer such questions sensibly, we had to force ourselves to root out of our memory the changes and novelties that had slipped our notice in everyday contact and in performing automatic functions. But indeed, maybe not by the day, but by the week something was always changing, whether it was that Pola had managed to walk a few steps on her own, holding a railing, or that her hair had started to grow back in funny little curls like after a perm, or that her words had increased and she was starting to say more. We even laughed at the idea that her vocabulary is already richer than the one used by the perfectly healthy people who come to night school at the WKD now.
We talked a lot about the norm, about returning to the norm, about normality and the fact that we may be struggling now, but one day, later on, in a while everything’s going to be fine.
“What does that mean?” asked the therapist one time.
She took me by surprise, and it took me a while to gather my thoughts. So many times since June I’ve repeated to myself and others that “everything’s going to be fine”, that I’ve long since stopped wondering what it means. Just as no one ever wonders what “mumbo-jumbo” means.
The therapist was silent, while I stared at her and at my own thoughts. Now I knew.
“Everything’s going to be fine” meant that one day I’ll wake up and Pola will run down the stairs and sing in the kitchen as she peels the potatoes.
“It means…” I shook my head and began to cry. Marcin got up from his chair and tried to take my hand, but I pressed my palms together and cried.
I was crying out of anger. I was crying out of helplessness.
“You shouldn’t be doing this to me!” went spinning round my head. People can’t be dragged into reality by force! It’s not on!
And yet with every tear I wept the truth came through to me, which I did appreciate, but, like a child, I felt that if I didn’t look at it, if I took no notice of it, it’d disappear, vanish into thin air, evaporate.
So I became conscious with full – yes, yes – “with full intensity” that my daughter would never run down any stairs ever again, because the cancer had irreversibly destroyed the part of her brain that corresponds to keeping your balance.
She will never peel potatoes, because her hands don’t know how to perform such precise movements.
And she will never, dear God, she will never sing again, because she’ll never recover full control of the muscles of the vocal tract, her voice will tremble and she won’t be able to hit the right sounds. So what if she’ll still know how to name them one after another, if she can’t keep the melody.
Never! The door is closed.
I cried, and I couldn’t stop, I used up half the tissues in the box on the table next to my armchair. Marcin sat without moving, with a hand over his face.
The therapist waited patiently until I calmed down a bit, then she said something that I spent the next few weeks digesting, but when I finally understood it, everything else gradually started to fall into place.
“You have to look at what has happened,” she said, “like a change. An irrevocable change, something that can’t be undone. It’s different, and that’s how it will remain. Not worse, not tragic, not monstrous, just different.”
I don’t know, maybe she used other words, maybe she didn’t say it quite so directly, but that’s how I remembered it. That things had changed, and I must come to terms with that change. I’ll never get back to the former situation, no matter how much I try.
Everything’s going to be fine, but only when Marcin, Pola and I come to terms with the fact that everything has irrevocably changed. Each of us has to do it in their own way, at their own speed, by their own means. And I must forgive myself first, then Marcin, and finally the rest of the world.
I must “be reconciled with the world”.
I have no alternative.
It has taken me a very, very long time. Maybe in a way it will take me the rest of my life, but it began there, in that woman’s cramped office when she told me something that a lot of people had been saying to me from the start. But she was the only one I heard. I believed I had already done everything in my power, I had won what could be won. But now I have to come to terms with what I have.
That’s how it works.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones