Absolute Sunset by Kata Mlek
I read Absolute Sunset by Polish Author Kata Mlek after reading Harvesting the Heart by New York Times perennial Bestseller, Jodi Picoult. Both books involve the darkness that pervades many women in early marriage and motherhood. Both books boldly address the fact that for lots of women, marriage and motherhood is not some glamorous love fest and mythical experience involving happy magical days of joy and chicken salad sandwiches and picnics on lush lawns. For some women, marriage and motherhood is a pathway into madness.
Absolute Sunset follows the sad tale of Hanka, a young girl in post Communist Poland who is plagued by visits from a cruel and perplexing raven in her dreams. In her real life, her mother Sabina is abusive, cruel, selfish, a drunk and desperately depressed. Sabina uses Vodka and sexual affairs to dampen the pain and rage inside of her. Her husband Janusz is a quiet and “head down” kind of man, who has a boring job and lives a mundane life. He doesn’t know what to do with his wife so he tries to placate her, take care of her and protect his daughter when he can. Hanka avoids her mother. Throughout the story, Sabina never appears to understand what is going on within her, so she does not really get any kind of help. A second pregnancy basically sends her over the edge and ends in a gruesome tragedy.
The raven visiting Hanka in her dreams also visits her mother. I took the raven to be representative of a certain level of mental illness within both Hanka and Sabina – only Sabina’s illness was much more advanced.
The story takes us through Hanka’s dark childhood, her mother’s imprisonment and death, and then into young adulthood where we find her living with her aging father, working in the same kind of job her father had, and still wrestling with the raven. The raven taunts her and sends her riddles to solve and prophecies to handle, many involving tragedies with people she knows or loves. When Hanka is unable to stop the tragedies, it appears she actually helped them along, an unwilling participant in the unfolding of fate. She thinks she is stopping a bad thing from happening or preventing the death of a loved one, and instead, she ends up solidifying its end. Instead of motherhood driving her crazy, it is the burden of so many responsibilities she carries that does the job. She holds everything on her shoulders, or at least she thinks she does, within her family and community. When everything she does to save them ends up in failure and more pain, Hanka will have to find her own kind of peace.
The book is a sad take on the reality many people live with each day: abuse, murder, alcoholism, poverty, depression, rape, mental illness. Most of life consists of things in which we have no control. We cannot help who we are born to. We cannot help where we live, to some extent, until we are old enough to do something about it. We cannot help what others do to us. We cannot help what demons visit us in our dreams. We cannot even help many of the diseases that plague us. The only control we have is in how we handle it, our reactions, our unwillingness to be defeated in the face of all that is unfair in life – and let’s face it, most of life is unfair.
Hanka’s story actually has an unconventional “happy ending.” It made me think about how writers deal with reality through their own words, making ourselves our own fantasy world of sorts. I suppose in some ways, writing is a simple coping mechanism for day to day living but also its own kind of “happy ending.”
Kata Mlek’s writing style is very quick and to the point. This book was translated from Polish and so any quirks within that translation are so minor that a native English speaker might not even really notice them. The author also provides a brief context of Polish events, sayings, history and culture at the end of her book which is very helpful in understanding some of the “lost in translation” wording or phrases.
I highly recommend Absolute Sunset by Kata Mlek. It is not for the faint of heart or for the sunshine-and-rainbows crowd. It is intense is some scenes and addresses some very difficult issues within all societies.
To learn more about Kata Mlek’s work, visit her website at www.katamlek.com and her book is on Amazon.