Olga Tokarczuk’s House of Day, House of Night

No place carries a stronger spirit of place in our memory than the places where we spent our childhood years. It is through the gift of our senses that we conjure up a place. What comes first when I think of the place where I spent my childhood is the uniform, relentless glare of a tropical sun, surrounded by an endless tangle of every shade of green, then comes the encompassing smell of the humid air and the gurgling jungle sounds. Only afterwards does my mind add the spectral presence of people, names and detail. An ordinary place for one person might be a sacred place for another.

Olga Tokarczuk lives in rural Lower Silesia, a region of Poland that was first integrated into the country after the Second World War. In a recent interview, she said: ““I’m lucky to have such an empty piece of land to describe because in Polish literature there are no legends or fairy-tales about it.” Nowa Ruda, a Polish mining town of medieval origin, with this history is recreated in Tokarczuk’s House of Day, House of Night.

Tokarczuk calls these her “constellation novels”, in which she creates an interstitial space, into which she adds “stories, essays and sketches” and gives room for a reader’s “imagination to form them into meaningful shapes”. If you’ve read this post of my experience of reading you’ll not be surprised that I am strongly drawn to novels that create depth from composing a literary atmosphere rather than through narrative plot or historical context.

In this novel, Tokarczuk’s characters are not quite freed from History, but they are far less constrained to follow conventional narrative conjectures. She conjures an exterior landscape that is projected into the interior spaces of her characters in a way that feels rich and alive. Those interior spaces feel as much part of the landscape as the spaces the characters inhabit and wander through. Reading House of Day, House of Night is to sense an impending catastrophe, but one that allows a decampment to another space.