On a mezzanine floor above the café at Dance East in Ipswich, in a space that is more used to hosting a small reading group, it’s standing room only. Perched on a bar stool in order to be seen over the heads of the crowd, is Amanda Hodgkinson, there to promote her first novel: 22 Britannia Road.
With her shoulder length blonde hair and yellow cardigan, Amanda looks elegant as a flower. And she answers questions in a calm, warm voice as if she has been doing this all her life. No one in the audience would guess that this is her first major promotional event for her book. But then this is her home crowd. Amanda, though she now lives in France, grew up in these parts.
The very first question brings a revelation: the Britannia Road of her imagination is not the same Britannia Road of Ipswich’s geographic reality. “I always knew I would set my first book here. But moving away from East Anglia turned it into the country of my imagination. That was very freeing. I wasn’t looking over my shoulder all the time thinking, ‘but it’s not really like that.’”
She talks about how she had imagined her move to France. “I would be sitting on the terrace, sipping wine as the words flowed.” The reality was very different. “The house we bought had no floor, no kitchen. It had running water, but not always where you wanted it to run.” Instead of sipping wine on the terrace she was learning to lay floors and fit kitchens.
But she did spend a final, intense year working on 22 Britannia Road. “The last couple of two weeks, I was writing until I just had to lie down and sleep. Then I’d wake up again and write through the night.”
The result is a wonderful, lyrical novel that explores what is means for a small family to have been separated by a war, to have undergone terrible experiences and have secrets from one another – and then to have to pick up the threads of their lives again after the war. The main characters are, like many others in East Anglia, Polish. The father fought with the Polish arm of the RAF; the wife and son are refugees, traced to Red Cross camp after the War.
Amanda reads us two passages: one from the opening of the book, where Sylvana and her son Aurek board the boat that will take them to England, and one where an increasingly frustrated Janusz insists on taking their troubled, almost feral son to the doctor. She reads beautifully, expressively, in a way that is sure to charm audiences.
After the reading, the audience is free to ask questions. She is asked about the research she did, and whether she feels a responsibility to the Polish community for telling their story. She immersed herself in a lot of reading , she tells us. But then she put that aside and let her imagination take hold. “I’m not a man, nor a boy child. And I’m not Polish. But a writer has to be free to imagine these things. That’s our job.”
Has she had any feedback from the Polish community? Not really. Not yet. But then someone from the audience pipes up. A mother and daughter. The mother is Polish. Like Sylvana, she survived the War in extreme poverty. Like Sylvana, she came to Ipswich after the War and settled. They haven’t read the book yet, but from what Amanda has said tonight, yes, that is what it was like. Amanda beams with pleasure and tells them she hopes they will enjoy the book.
Unusually for a first novel, 22 Britannia Road has already been sold around the world. It is being translated into French, German, Romanian... the list goes on. It is already published in both Australia and North America. And Amanda is about to leave on a tour of Indy bookshops in the US. If tonight’s performance is anything to go by, she is going to knock 'em dead.