House of Day, House of Night
Northwestern University Press edition published 2003. Copyright © 1988, 2002 by Olga Tokarczuk. Translation copyright © 2002 by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Dom dzienny, dom nocny first published in Poland by Wydawnictwo Ruta 1998. This translation first published in Great Britain by Granta Books 2002.
What’s it about?
It tells the story of a Polish town and how it came to be inhabited after World War II, when parts of Germany became parts of Poland, and Germans either abandoned their homes or were forcibly moved west to other parts of Germany.
What’s it really about?
If you’ve ever moved into a house or an apartment, you might have wondered about the history of that place. Who were the people that first lived there? How did they arrange the furniture? What did they hide in the trap door?
Or maybe you grew up in a neighborhood with eccentric neighbors, whom you assigned nicknames, and created personas and backstories for; in my neighborhood, we had The Witch, Spandex Man, and Ponce, and how could I almost forget Mailbox Lady.
House of Day, House of Night is like if all those thoughts about your neighbors, or the history of your house or town were put down in writing and told by a much better story teller than you or I, someone with an imagination and writing style that perfectly balances the absurd with the believable.
Why should I read it?
There’s pure, unadulterated genius in the way that Olga Tokarczuk is able to communicate life lessons and the personal philosophies of her characters in a way that makes complete sense and is eminently relatable. As a reader, it makes the characters as familiar as that next door neighbor or maybe your wacky Aunt Molly. As a writer, it makes you incredibly jealous that you didn’t think of it first.
With some books or authors, you need to care about the subject matter in order to enjoy them. You might need to be a Civil War buff to appreciate a book about the strategy of the Union generals, or a die-hard Jacksonville Jaguars fan to appreciate a biography of Blake Bortles.
With Tokarczuk, the subject matter is almost irrelevant, because the characters are the story. From Paschalis the transgender monk, to Whatshisname, to Marta the wig-making neighbor, the characters are brought to life in a way that would make Prometheus jealous.
You don’t need to care about the history of small towns in Poland in order to enjoy this book.
Why should I not read it?
If you are looking for a story with a distinct beginning, middle, and end, then you will not like this. The book is broken up into small vignettes and as such, the timeline jumps around a bit (although not in a way that is confusing by any means). There is no exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement here.
Overall rating / recommendation?
Olga Tokarczuk is a living legend, and you should read everything she’s ever written. If Pete Buttigieg were to read her, he’d learn Polish so he could read these books in the original language.