Neighbours & Tourists by Ewa Mazierska

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Neighbours & Tourists by Ewa Mazierska

Ewa Mazierska’s collection of short stories, Neighbours & Tourists (Adelaide Books, 2019) is an intriguing and soulful assortment of travel stories set across Europe and India, as well as a deep dive into the human condition. They vary from village stories told by a returning narrator to well-seasoned travelers who manage more than a glance at the secret world of the local populations they visit. The collection has a duality about it. It is also about home—of coming home. What it feels like to return after many years to discover the changes and sameness in childhood spaces. The beauty and disappointment of it all. Or the idea of creating home in transient spaces which is more than unpacking a suitcase and tucking it under a hotel bed. To create a home, one must venture out into society and bring it back piece by piece, brick by brick, building home in local experience and exposure to the people and customs of the new place until the new place begins to feel familiar. Mazierska defines this idea in the details of her stories.

The stories are arranged in two parts: Neighbours and Tourists. The beginning ones (Neighbours) read like a social commentary revealing much of the hierarchy of friendships and strangers in the narrator’s childhood village. The first story, “The Death of a Neighbor,” sets this idea into motion:

The deaths of the neighbours inevitably affected the hierarchy of those who remained; the further ones by virtue of being still around moved to the position of the close ones.

Indeed, Mazierska’s first story told by a female narrator relates the intimate details of a nearly 1980s Polish village under martial law that only someone from that village could reveal and Mazierska does this in an interesting way. The story reads like gossip. Lots of telling. I could almost see the narrator sitting across the table from me, a cup of coffee and a cigarette smoldering as she revealed the “backwardness” of her village whispering the word “cancer” as the village villain as she goes on to describe local population and their death culture.

[D]ead people only live as long as they live in other people’s memory.

This first story really is the jumping-off point. Once immersed, it was difficult to stop reading as the stories are loosely linked like little houses on a lighted string. The reader travels house to house, following the first narrator as she pedals the reader on a private tour of her childhood village. The backdrop of the stories hints of the decrepitness and economic collateral damage from World War II, the Cold War, and the Berlin Wall. One story, “Too Smart,” was a tragedy about the downfall of a Polish family by a gangster marriage. Other stories related even more tragedies about more rural families, some from their own doings, which according to the narrator’s mother from the story “Disinheritance” was “worse than the Holocaust.”

After this story, I started to wonder if it was time to put the book down.These characters seemed real to me and their misfortunes depressing and painfully poignant. They reminded me of Anton Chekov’s stories. Mazierska created them so vividly that I did wonder where the intersection of fiction and truth met. Her writing was spot on and elegant. Then something happened. I turned the page. I read a few more lines and she had me. The next little house on Mazierska’s strand was “The Widow and Her Daughter.” It was pretty terrific. I am partial to women’s stories and this one in particular was surprising and striking. Mazierska set it up beautifully:  teacher who grew beautiful flowers and traveled beyond the village borders of her stereotype.

…the daughter was in her forties and she was still unmarried and lived with her mother. This was an uncommon position for women in our village, except that it befell female teachers more often than members of any other occupational groups, simply because teachers in Poland are mostly women, so they have few opportunities for office romance and live under pressure to behave modestly.

And she was anything but modest.

The second part of the collection shifts to the early 2000s and often to third person, beginning with the lopsided love story of Sarah and Thomas (“Homo Sacer and Her Lover”) who meet on several business trips in Budapest. One of them is a true romantic and the other a “‘homo sacer’: somebody who has only his physical life, zoe, rather than bio, which was a higher form of existence.”

Another story I liked very much was “Heaven for Prostitutes.” The narrator stops for directions and meets a cohort of colorful characters in a chance encounter. Here, Mazierska humanizes these characters, giving them dignity and a certain grace despite their professions.

‘Maybe childbirth is more painful than walking the night in
uncomfortable shoes, but at least no woman gives birth every night for 35 years[.]’

Other stories relate the prejudice often directed at the local populations by travelers, not contrived but still apparent. In “Carlos and Us,” another chance encounter opens a new world for a family who befriend a local man. The travelers romanticize him and come to realize that their new friend has a distaste for foreigners.

[W]e remain tourist attractions for each other: fake or at least decontextualised.

This theme appears again in other stories as the characters immerse themselves in the local cultures sometimes superficially, other times losing themselves completely in it. Mazierska’s writing is personal and profound, tracing and trespassing boundaries of time, space, and the human heart. She draws you in and keeps you to the end.

*

Ewa Mazierska is a historian of film and popular music who writes short stories in her spare time. Her work has been published in The Longshot Island, The Fiction Pool, Literally Stories, Away, The Bangalore Review, Shark Reef, Toasted Cheese, Opiate, Red Fez, Thimble, and Mystery Tribune among others.  She is also a Pushcart nominee and her work was shortlisted in several competitions including most recently the 2019 Eyelands Book Awards. Born in Poland, Mazierska currently resides in Lancashire, UK. Neighbours and Tourists is her first collection of short stories. Twitter: @EwaMazierska
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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: reviews[at]toasted-cheese.com

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