I’ve had Poles Apart on my e-reader for a while now; the author, Polly Courtney, had it available for free download a year or so ago to commemorate the anniversary of Poland joining the EU. I was scrolling through my e-reader a few weeks ago, a couple of days after the EU referendum, and needless to say, Poles Apart jumped out at me. It was exactly the book I needed at the time. Poles Apart follows the story of a young woman, Marta, who, armed with a marketing degree, leaves her small town life behind to seek her fortune in London. She soon learns that her degree doesn’t matter much to hiring managers who can’t pronounce the name of her university, and finds herself struggling to get a job at all, in addition to dealing with the pettiness and self-centredness of her flatmate’s social circle. While London might hold more opportunities than Marta’s hometown, they may well be just as far out of reach.
I appreciated the way Courtney highlighted so-called ‘positive racism’, particularly the stereotype that Poles are hard-working. Even though Marta is hard-working, the stereotype is still damaging, in part because people view her hard work as a simple fact of her nationality, not a unique quality of hers as an individual. Her hard work isn’t appreciated as it might be in a British woman, because it’s expected of her as Pole.
Moreover, the notion that Poles are hard-working isn’t as flattering as it initially appears; Poles are considered hard-working, yes, but it’s very much in a menial sense. The Brits Marta meets consider Poles fantastic for jobs in construction, au pairing, and other unskilled labour, but like many Poles with advanced qualifications, Marta struggles to get potential employers to take her seriously in any skilled field. She has a degree in marketing from the best university for the subject in Poland, but interviewers can’t get past the fact they can’t pronounce the institution’s name. In the end, Marta only gets her foot in the door because a job agency uses aptitude tests, and while her CV did not impress them she attained very high scores on the tests.
The idea that Poles are hard-working and willing to take on the jobs that Brits turn their noses up is often trotted out by well-meaning politicians on the left, defending the right to free movement that has allowed them to settle in the UK. But as Courtney shows, often Polish immigrants take on these jobs because they have no other choice; even with good English skills, Marta found employers were put off by her being Polish and having qualifications they didn’t recognise, and so she found herself working 12-hour shifts 6 days a week (a violation of the European Working Time Directive, and quite possibly the reason her employer targeted Poles, because they’re ‘so hard working’) handing out flyers.
What stops this being a depressing read about immigration and racism is in Courtney’s characters. Certainly, many of her Brits are racist – either deliberately or out of ignorance – but there are some who are true friends to Marta, who encourage her and help her in her job hunt and who view her as Marta first and foremost, not as Polish primarily. They’re ordinary young Brits who, like Marta, are struggling to uncover the future they want for themselves. Indeed, one of the most poignant moments in the book is when Marta’s friend, Holly, confesses she’s been lying to her mother about her job, just like Marta has. Both women are ambitious and hard-working, and for Holly this meant working in the City even though it means long hours at a job she hates, all the while telling her mother how fantastic it is because her mother is so proud of her. Similarly, Marta has been pretending to have a great time working in England, even though she’s struggling to find a long-term position in her field. Both want their parents to be proud of them, but both are also still struggling to be able to be proud of themselves.
I found myself drawn to Marta as a protagonist very quickly. She’s determined and resourceful, and even though she is utterly devoted to carving out a career for herself she never throws others under the bus or abandons her friends. She is, quite simply, someone you want to root for.
Poles Apart is a poignant, and at times funny, read about the struggles facing a young Polish woman upon her arrival in the UK. As such, it’s also an incredibly timely read here in Britain, where these issues have been thrust into the forefront in the past few months, and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a novel that captures the essence of immigration, or even just anyone looking for a story about a young woman fighting for what she wants in life.
Nicola is currently melting in Scotland’s annual week-long summer.