BOOK REVIEW / A foreign policy

THE BRONSKI HOUSE: A Return to the Borderlands by Philip Marsden, HarperCollins pounds 16.99

AS A child, Philip Marsden never went abroad. Family holidays were spent in a small Cornish seaside town. There was, though, one exotic element to the place. Zofia was a Polish poet and an aristocrat who had fled Poland with her mother in 1939. She had moved to the town after the war, where she ran its main hotel. Somehow, Philip became friendly with this woman. She would take the young boy out to lunch, recounting fabulous Polish stories in her honeyed "spongy" accent. She was, to Marsden, abroad.

Marsden grew up to become a travel writer (his last book Crossing Places : A Journey Among the Armenians, won the Somerset Maugham Award). Here he repays Zofia for the stories of his youth. Drawing on her own memories, her mother's journals - "Old Europe squashed like a fly between yellowing pages" - and a couple of journeys Zofia and Marsden made back to her old home, he disinters her family's past.

The story is a dramatic one, although not untypically so for its time and place. Zofia's family were Polish Catholics from around Wilno or Vilnius, one of the most contested and unstable borderlands of Europe. Once Eastern Poland, it was, at the beginning of the century, Western Russia. Her mother, Helena, born just before the turn of the century, lived the first 16 years of her life in peaceful if oppressive comfort, attending a convent in Cracow, and passing the summers in the estates of her relatives and friends. At the beginning of the First World War, however, the family were forced to retreat before the German advance into Russia, leading a great convoy of horses, wagons, servants and possessions - fur, gold plate, Persian carpets, Saxony china, Moroccan leather books - to St Petersburg.

As Marsden tells it, this set the pattern for the rest of Helena's life. After two glamorous years in St Petersburg, she and her family were fleeing once more, this time from the Russian Revolution, their means of escape a goods-train. The Bolsheviks caught up with Helena again outside Minsk - she escaped with nothing but the clothes she was standing in - and then invaded Wilno on her wedding day. Then, with the re-establishment of an independent Poland in 1921, Helena and her family knew 18 years of relative peace in the Bronski House of the title. Her diary falls silent at the time, recording only intermittently a life devoted to her family and farm. But permanent exile began in 1939 when Zelena, Zofia and her other children managed to escape across the Lithuanian border, the shots of the advancing Russian army flying overhead.

Most writers would count themselves lucky to have Helena's journals to work with. She comes across as an exceptionally intelligent and resourceful woman whose life, replete with Tolstoyian romances and suicides, becomes the centre of this book. But Marsden tells her history skilfully, almost too skilfully in fact, filling in and smoothing over the gaps that must have existed in the accounts that came down to him. What emerges is both an intensely detailed portrait of a way of life that has now gone forever, and a fast-moving, eye-witness account of the conflicts that killed it off. As for Marsden himself, he remains a shadowy figure and it is a mystery why he should identify so strongly, almost nostalgically, with these distant borderlines. You sense that while he has learnt about the loneliness of exile, he is still not enamoured of home.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'