THE LULLABY OF POLISH GIRLS. By Dagmara Dominczyk. Spiegel & Grau. 216 pages. $25.
Many authors are quick to distinguish between fact and the fiction they create. It’s often a tidy disclaimer made more for family and friends than an actual truth of the author’s creative process.
In Dagmara Dominczyk’s debut novel, “The Lullaby of Polish Girls,” however, there is no denying the parallels between the author’s and protagonists’ lives.
The author’s father was a founding member of the workers’ union Solidarity, so when Martial Law was declared in Poland in 1981, he was imprisoned for a year; upon his release, his family, including a seven-year-old Dagmara, was deported and moved to Flatbush, Brooklyn.
Like the author, Anna comes from a family of political refugees, and both women have subsequent brushes with fame (Dominczyk herself has acted in numerous films, TV series, and plays, and is married to actor Patrick Wilson). Anna returns each summer to visit her family and childhood friends, Justyna and Kamila, in Kielce.
It is an exotic place for her, a romanticized home that she can never wholly return to. On one trip, a 12-year-old Anna notices from the car window: “The sun is rising quickly. It is enormous but shapeless, as if God has taken a knife to it and is spreading it across the sky. The American sun blanches in comparison.” Even the air is ideal: “It smells like burning haystacks and fresh laundry, like sunshine and sausage, piquant and fresh at the same time. There are layers of scents in this old air; it is aged to perfection.”
The feeling of foreignness and of being unmoored from home drives the novel and its three main characters: Anna, Justyna, Kamila. Despite sharing a homeland, the women’s disparate adulthoods take them around the world and far from one another. Each is reconciling themselves with the ways they have lost control of their lives. Each is mourning for something lost; each is hoping for something found.
On leaving after a visit back to her homeland, Anna “feels her heart breaking. Just a few kilometers away but she already feels tesknota, a Polish word that describes a kind of yearning for which there is no American equivalent.” Despite the differences in semantics, the characters illustrate the commonality of experience, and specifically of human longing for completeness.
Though it is a coming-of-age story, it lacks the usual sentimentality of the genre, and in fact is a brutally honest portrayal of how lonely and disorienting the human experience can be. Boasting an impressive momentum, the novel is insistent in tone. Dominczyk is a talented storyteller whose grit and lyricism are as perfectly balanced as the human need to flee from and to home.
Reviewer Summer Mauldin is an editor and writer living in Charleston.