Reviewed in this essay: Giant by Aga Maksimowska. Pedlar Press, 2012.
In 1988, Eastern Europe is on the brink of revolution. The citizens of Poland are weary from the stifling Communist management of their lives. Workers set in motion an unprecedented series of strikes that ripple across the country and ignite a slow but steady assault on the repressive regime. Into this setting plods an 11-year-old Polish girl, Gosia Wasiljewski, a “giant freak” who can barely reconcile herself with the strangeness of her oversized body, let alone the monumental changes that are shaking her country apart.
In their fragile family unit, Gosia and her younger sister Kasia await the return of their mother, a migrant worker who has traveled to Canada for employment. With their estranged father working on container ships on ocean routes to East Asia, Gosia and her sister grow up in the housing developments of Morena, where Soviet apartment blocks teem with families who have absent fathers like their own.
Giant is political revolution witnessed through the ordinary roughness of the everyday; the intimacies of a struggling working class family are examined by a protagonist who studies her world with pragmatic resignation. Maksimowska’s style is restrained, delivering information with an even tone, the prose devoid of the overly poetic excess that is too often paired with themes of revolution and longing. This style creates a voice for Gosia that has a satirical edge, the portrait of Communist Poland poignant and biting when seen through her eyes: “Morena is about as special as a stray cat. Our apartment block is constructed of concrete slabs, a sixty-five-unit house of cards joined together with school glue.” There is unrest beneath the stoic, practicality of her voice, a careful mimicry of the political state of the country, where beneath the war pocked, grey slate stoicism of Communist Poland, a revolution is brewing.
Though the political events of 1980s Poland are integral to the work, Maksimowska does not sentimentalize these world-changing events. With a careful rendering of a protagonist whose world is marked by absence, the political is made personal. The ill effects of Poland’s precarious position as a “satellite state” transpire in the absence of Gosia’s parents, particularly her mother. Maksimowska makes Poland matter because it matters to this girl, the strange and lonely Gosia trying to make sense of her own small world.
The second half of the novel brings Gosia to Toronto where the novel could easily unravel into an expected, but satisfactory portrait of immigrant struggles. But with consistency and foresight, Maksimowska keeps the focus on Gosia’s emotional landscape, the frightening adolescent battle of fitting in linked to her lifelong struggle to reconcile herself with her body. With subtlety and nuance, Gosia’s arc as a character is organic, but also focussed and purposeful, the humour underlining her voice consistently throughout.
Giant is a coming of age novel that is both heartrending and humorous, the young protagonist a skillfully wrought character who with dry wit and a satirical eye, brings an overlooked revolution—and country—to life.