‘Kontredans’ (‘Contra dance’) is probably not that great of a book to merit the four stars I gave it. Objectively, it isn’t. The writing is occasionally flat and monotonous and at other times it swerves sharply into the purple prose territory, what with all the exclamation marks, suspension points, and melodrama.
Yet, I couldn’t put it down and it spoke to me on this very emotional level. We have two sisters: Krystyna and Anna, and as sisters in books are prone to be, one is good and the other one is bad. However, which one is which in this case is up to you to decide. At the first glance the evil one is Anna, a depressed alcoholic, while Krystyna is earning brownie points by not complaining, always helping others (including her prodigal sister and her abandoned son). But when the point of view switches to Anna and you see the world with her eyes you realise how badly she was equipped to survive in the world. You feel her vulnerability and mind-numbing existential pain that no amount of alcohol can assuage. You also feel the suffocating presence of Krystyna, Krystyna who always takes care of everything, who never lets you fail, never lets you die, Krystyna who keeps you in this state, suffocates you, stunts your progress. Krystyna who stole your chance to be a mother. Krystyna who is so afraid of ageing and death, and so bent on disassociating herself from any stronger emotions. But then Krystyna has been through so much, in prison during Stalinist terror, tortured, abandoned. The only way for her to survive in a relative sanity was to start over, erase herself and start with a clean slate, mould herself into someone who copes with everything.
The book, while taking you in a chaotic and not chronological way through a few decades of life in communist Poland ends up almost exactly where it started, just like in a Baroque contra dance, where people move around, arrange themselves in different constellations, spin and kick but then in the end, they are exactly in the same place they were in the beginning.
*The cover you see is from the original edition from the 80s which had to be printed in one of the underground presses as it would've never got a green light from the censors.