Category Archives: Czechowska, Joanna

Review of ‘Sweetest Enemy’ by Joanna Czechowska

Amazon, October 2012 (

Sequel to ‘The Black Madonna of Derby’.

Whereas the title of ‘The Black Madonna of Derby’ was bang on the nail, I finished reading ‘Sweetest Enemy’ still wondering who the ‘Sweetest Enemy’ was.  As the story started in the Gdansk Shipyards, in the middle of the 1980 Shipyard Strikes, was it Solidarnosc, an organisation which is quite capable of becoming its own worst enemy, as it did in the latter part of 1981 and in the mid-1990s?  But, as this book only touches briefly on Solidarnosc, this is unlikely.  On reflection, this reader believes that the oh-so-sweet enemy was Poland itself, which, having already devoured Zosia, consumes Helena as she searches for her Jewish uncle by marriage, Nathan.  It even affects down-to-earth Wanda who comments that her Polish Catholic upbringing prompts her to genuflect as she reaches the end of the row of seats in the cinema.

This sequel continues the story of the Baran family in England, with occasional scenes in Poland, taking us up to the overthrow of the Communist regime.  Maybe it is because, having read the Black Madonna, I am thoroughly familiar with the characters, but I feel that in this second book they mellow.  The saddest happening was the death of husband and father, Tadek, a grounded and under-stated saint in a family of prima donnas (except Wanda).  I become even more fond of the mature Wanda, who moves firmly into the mc role, and Anna – every mother’s dream daughter – who floats through the life Zosia should have had but didn’t.  Wanda and Pawel’s marriage (in the last book) was not made in heaven, but her last words, as she receives birthday invitations from her husband and Bronek (the man she ought to have married) is that life is good.  No Anna Karenina, Wanda is too real for drama and tragedy.

Aleks (Pawel’s errant father) is the most significant new character, a charming wheeler-dealer, who, amongst other things, dips his hand into Solidarnosc’s donations.  They never rumble him, but, despite his dramatic escape in Bronek’s car boot in December 1981, with Jaruzelski’s soldiers hard on his heels, Poland consumes him too.  Some of the most insightful passages in ‘Sweetest Enemy’ feature political discussions between real Poles Aleks and Pawel, Bronek (who has lived in Warsaw for several years) and the British champagne revolutionary Roger Elliott, concerning who is on what side: Margaret Thatcher against Arthur Scargill; the British trade union movement not supporting Solidarnosc because they instinctively align themselves with the Communist government; Mrs Thatcher talking up Solidarnosc; Pawel saying the British police are right to confront the striking miners.

Like the ‘Black Madonna’, the plotline is complicated and meandering – you might say, character-driven.  One plot-thread which is not followed up is Wanda seeing hallucinations of her late sister, Zosia, and Helena finding a link with schizophrenia in the family.  Zosia’s appearances stop suddenly in Irena’s flat in Warsaw where Zosia died: had Wanda laid the ghost?  This is not clear.

However, Dear Reader, ‘Sweetest Enemy’ held this reader’s attention for the two days it took me to read it.  Was it an easy read?  Yes, if you’re interested in the history of the latter part of the twentieth century, but a younger person may need some explanatory footnotes.  Do I recommend it?  Yes, but I would definitely suggest you read ‘The Black Madonna of Derby’ first.

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.