Mlek tells the story of a family haunted by an ominous raven in this debut novel translated from the Polish.
Hanka is troubled, both when she’s awake and when she’s asleep. During the day, she’s abused by her unstable mother, Sabina, who drinks and laments the passing of her youth and beauty. Hanka’s loving father, Janusz, does what he can to shield her from her mother’s fury, but he works long hours. At night, a demanding raven visits Hanka in her dreams and takes her flying with him, but he also forces her to find him food at the risk of her own well-being. When she disobeys the bird, he pecks at her head, drawing blood. Hanka’s waking-life situation deteriorates further when Sabina becomes pregnant and makes it clear she doesn’t want another child (or even the child she already has). She becomes increasingly abusive to Hanka, Janusz, and, later, the new baby, Bartek. She mellows a bit when she finds a new lover, a deliveryman with an apartment where she can escape from her family—that is, until the raven of Hanka’s dreams begins appearing in Sabina’s, expressing quixotic concerns over the baby’s health. When tragedy strikes, it becomes clear that the raven’s powers extend into the real world, and Hanka must decide whether she’s willing to play his game in order to keep herself safe. Mlek’s tale is caustic, bleak, and always seems to take the most disturbing route to remind readers that it’s no children’s fairy tale. The passages concerning the raven are wrought with a terrible, fabulist beauty, and readers will wish there were more of them, particularly in the novel’s first half. The daytime villain, Sabina, is just as fantastic in her own way. In this passage, she beats a relative bloody at the baptism party of little Bartek: “Blood leaked between his fingers as he shielded his face. Sabina threw back her head and laughed….Seeing that some of the guests were getting close, she fled, climbing up a willow and hiding amongst its branches.” In Mlek’s hands, night and day are equally nightmarish.
A chilling modern fairy
tale of post-Communist Poland.