Monday, 8 April 2013

CBR-V #6: How To Get Into The Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak

Sara reviewed this last year and sent it on to me after I expressed an interest. Given that we live on different continents, that was quite a sweet gesture! Her review is probably a bit more focussed on the literary bit, whereas for me, this hits somewhat closer to home, and I'll try to make sense of it in this review. How To Get Into The Twin Palms is the story of Anya, a young woman born in Poland, but raised in America. After a childhood spent furiously trying to be, or at least be perceived as, American, she is now bored with both the restrictive culture of her parents' home and life in L.A., where she lives in a Russian neighbourhood and struggles to survive on unemployment benefits. Trying to fit in somewhere, she is drawn to the Twin Palms, a club for the better-off Russians of L.A.. In an attempt to gain access to this exclusive club, she starts an affair with Lev, who might or might not be involved in criminal activities. The story itself is quite depressing in that Anya seems deeply unhappy and barely objects to Lev treating her as a commodity. There isn't much that excites her (she picks Lev only because he's Russian and reacts to her attempts at flirtation), and soon it becomes clear that the Twin Palms won't be the fulfillment she dreams of. It's a short novel, so Anya doesn't get much chance to grow or even just be portrayed in a sympathetic way. We never get to know her name, having been told in the beginning that she chooses "Anya" for its Russian vibe. What we get is a short glimpse of the life of a woman unsure of her place in the world, and this is what makes this novel interesting and very touching. There are many things in this novel that are familiar to me. My husband is from Poland, and from a few visits to the country alone I can relate to Anya's thoughts about family traditions, local food and - the uncomfortable highlight of any Polish road trip - the sight of prostitutes and grannies selling mushrooms in the forests. But the thing that immediately got me was the start of an early chapter: "What I am is always the first question". It is. I'm German, I've lived in Britain for 8 years, and I've made my peace with this question now. It's almost never a sign of resentment or distrust, it might even be genuine excitement about meeting someone even the tiniest bit exotic, but it still stings. It's never "What do you do?" or "Do you like [insert topic of discussion]?" Sometimes it's not even "And what's your name?" It's the fact that in some way, I don't belong. Like Anya, I'm not completely comfortable with my cultural heritage, and I'd gladly masquerade as something else for a while, but like Anya, I lack the language skills. (I will never pass as Polish, even though I'm halfway there by virtue of my marriage, because that language is IMPOSSIBLE! Erhem.) But most days I'm fine. I have become many things; I've been made welcome by a lot of people, and I will always rock in quizzes that ask questions about obscure German traditions. My children, I am told again and again, will benefit from their many backgrounds and language skills. But even that worries me. Will my daughter feel like Anya, never truly at home in any of her cultures? She's only 4, but I've heard people comment on her (very slight) German accent more than once. Her German sounds British. Her Polish is that of a toddler. For me, she's a genius, and these are the things that make her special. Will it still be a positive thing when she's grown up? At some point in the book, Lev tells Anya she speaks Polish like a child. I felt her pain jumping off the page. These are the things that ocassionally keep me up at night... There is a lot more going on in How To Get Into The Twin Palms than what actually happens in 190 pages. And while some might argue that the plot is a bit slight, I read a lot more between the lines than I thought I would. And now I need a Vodka.

2 comments:

  1. Great review. I like hearing about your more closely-tied perspective, since my cultural heritage amounts to, "Well, pick a country in Western Europe, and maybe a few of the Eastern ones too. There's bound to be a splash of everything in there."

    Also, thanks for the shout-out.

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  2. PS: https://twitter.com/believekarolina/status/326856149938872320

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