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Review of ‘Sweetest Enemy’ by Joanna Czechowska

Amazon, October 2012 (http://www.amazon.com/Sweetest-Enemy-ebook/dp/B0088QNB36)

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.