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Debut novel depicts bewildering teenage immigrant experience

Aga Maksimowska

Moe Gross/Handout

Aga Maksimowska
Pedlar Press

Eleven-year-old Gosia, her parents divorced, lives with a younger sister and battling grandparents in a concrete Soviet-era apartment block in 1988 Gdansk, the Polish city once called Danzig and ruled by Germans. It seems her grandpa may even have some German in him – enough, at least, to bristle when his wife tells him the Germans were worse tyrants than the Russians. Gosia escapes their skirmishes out on the balcony, where she feeds stale bread to Baltic seagulls, ignoring the local gripes about "flying rats."

Polish-Canadian writer Aga Maksimowska offers a engaging young narrator whose viewpoint is edged with ironies. Among other tart observations on the dilemmas of Polish identity, Gosia notes that their 10th-floor apartment is actually 11 floors up: "the ground floor is called parter, floor zero, not floor one. Polish people have a lot of trouble starting at one. It's always nothing first."

The neighbourhood fathers work at sea. When they happen to be home they brood and drink, "so it is like none of them is ever home anyway." In Gosia's case, the resident hard-core drinker is her grandmother, whose lifetime of embitterments includes the vivid wartime memory of her father, a butcher, strung up by the ankles and bled dry, "like one of his cattle."

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Life with the maternal grandparents is a daily round of rumbles and eruptions, broken up (like the china) by tearful phone calls from Gosia's mother, working in Canada, and a dad who comes in once or twice a year from the container ships and acts as if his parenting has never been anything less than seamless devotion.

Home base for Gosia's narration is her present and immediate pubescent self, jaded beyond her years, tinged with an all-purpose Slavic shrug against despair. Her candid description of her unanticipated first period, amid a bout of intestinal distress in a Baltic beach outhouse, is poised between cringe-inducing farce and heartbreak.

Part two brings us to Toronto, with Gosia and sister Kasia joining their mother in a sterile suburban home with a bland stepfather, whose stilted second-generation Polish seems to Gosia "sweet and mushy, pudding in the mouth." Other new-world oddities include corn that comes in breakfast flakes instead of cattle feed, and mint in ice cream instead of tea. Far worse is the understanding that their mother, once a teacher, has been reduced to cleaning houses for a living.

School days, for months, are a mix of bewildering and mortifying. English is laboriously absorbed , the stigma of foreignness endured. A teacher's spontaneous current-events lesson, forcibly co-opting crimson-faced Gosia into his earnest chronicle of Poland's liberating Solidarity Movement, leaves her pining for more class time with Iroquois longhouses. Coming of age in this book becomes a gauntlet of culture clash, dovetailed smartly with all the usual absurdities of growing up.

Maksimowska's story takes on a hasty-feeling compression in the last 25 pages, fast-forwarding and backpedalling through Gosia's seven teenage years. She finds an almost-boyfriend, launching a co-nerd relationship. With her mum and sister, she revisits Poland for her grandmother's funeral, witnessing the change that democracy has brought: "The acid-washed jean-wearing young men in the [railway] canteen car … were now inhaling colourfully packaged M&Ms, Cokes and Pringles instead of eating butcher-paper wrapped bologna sandwiches and hardboiled eggs."

We leave Gosia at 19, off to Victoria, B.C., with a scholarship to study marine biology and a dream of attaining Olympic fame as a rower. Defying her mother, she says she won't be making a bid for the Polish team. "Motherland schmotherland, I'm not going back there. Not even for a medal."

Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.

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