Review of 'The Black Madonna of Derby' by Joanna Czechowska

This will – I hope – be the first of many hot-off-the-press reviews posted as soon as I have finished reading.  Although the reviews will appear as posts initially, they will be moved on to a new page (not yet built) when I write the next post.  I intend to tell it as I read it, without mincing words, ‘praise sandwiches’ or any other ruses.  If there are things that don’t work for me, I will say so.

Btw, I read everything on Kindle… apart from ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’, the real, paperback book I’m reading at the moment, which was bought for me as a Christmas present.

‘The Black Madonna of Derby’ by Joanna Czechowska

The title – wow!  It signals exactly what this book is going to be about – Polish immigrants in the English Midlands.  The thread of authenticity that runs through The Black Madonna is palpable.  Joanna (as you would expect with a name like hers) has Polish blood – a Polish father and an English mother (according to her Amazon profile) and she is clearly writing about what she knows, not what she has researched.  Those of us who attended school alongside many a Maria, Ewa, Helena and Evona will recognise the complicated lives of the Baran family: the suppressed and repressed memories of unspeakable happenings during the war; the sexing up of those memories; parents and grandparents who live in the past; and the feeling of not quite belonging.

The Black Madonna charts the story of three generations of  a Polish family who fled Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War.  Zosia falls in love with the romanticised version of Poland dished up by her grandmother, Barbara, whereas younger Janek stonewalls his Polish heritage, refusing to speak the language and embracing everything Anglo-Saxon. Wanda, the older sister, who first appears in the book as a child of the Sixties and a Paul McCartney groupie, runs through the gamut of emotions regarding her Polishness.  This novel involves a huge number of characters in diverse situations, including Irina and family still living in Warsaw, and a wide variety of issues, from Beatlemania, (possible) racial bullying, under-age sex within the Church of England, forced labour under the Nazis and dissident activity under the Communists.

Pawel was an interesting character: on one level he was an unconvincing dissident, running off copies of ‘Animal Farm’ from a printing press in a secret location at one point then, several chapters on,  defecting to the West – but what else could a disaffected Polish young man do in the 1970s?  Joanna understands that, just as not every Frenchman/Frenchwoman during the Nazi Occupation was Resistant, citizens of East European Peoples’ Republics weren’t all Lech Walesa. However, I was surprised that the Gdansk Shipyard Strikes of 1970 didn’t get a mention.

The fact that I have to think about the written style of the Black Madonna must be a good thing, because nothing detracted me from the tableau Joanna was revealing.  I use the word ‘tableau’ advisedly, as there was no real plot-line, and a few loose ends.  I felt that Wanda’s transformation from Carnaby Street girl was  bit sudden, even bearing in mind her various disappointments.  I never really did understand why Zosia was being bullied.  Was it because she was Polish or because she was pretty and clever?   A nice touch, though, was her schoolmates shedding crocodile tears over her.  There are occasional bursts of typically self-deprecating Polish humour, such as when Wanda is about to leave for London and her grandmother for Warsaw, and Wanda’s mother suggests they celebrate the two events together.  “Yes,” says Wanda, “I’m sure my friends will want to attend a memorial mass.”

‘The Black Madonna of Derby’, which ends when John Paul II is elected Pope in 1978,  is the first book in a two part series.  The second, ‘The Sweetest Enemy’ (which I haven’t read yet) is about the Polish independent trade union, Solidarity.  I did just open the first Kindle page, to see the heading ‘Gdansk Shipyard, August 1980’ and, having been there myself four years ago, this was another blow to the solar plexus.  Wow again.

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3 thoughts on “Review of 'The Black Madonna of Derby' by Joanna Czechowska

  1. Joanna Czechowska

    Dear Charlie
    thanks a million for your review of my novel and I hope you enjoy the sequel Sweetest Enemy as much. I’ll be interested to read your other reviews in the future. I wonder what you will think of Death Comes to Pemberley. For me, the only point of interest was when PD James mentioned a character was incarcerated in the ‘new prison in Derby’. It was built around 1820, looks rather like a castle and happened to be situated at the end of the road where I grew up. It was a rather grim fixture of my childhood although by then was being used as a greyhound stadium.
    best wishes
    Joanna Czechowska

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  2. Patsy

    Sounds like an interesting book.

    I’m going to try to review, or at least rate all the books I read from now on (probably on Goodreads and Amazon). That’s probably at least in part because after getting a few reviews myself I know how important they are for writers.

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