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.

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