22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson Penguin, HK$169 A snoop through a loved one's things can satisfy an idle curiosity, and reveal life-changing secrets. Polish refugee Silvana Nowak can't resist reading some hidden letters, and realises that her relationship with her husband Janusz will never be the same. After six years of fleeing the Russians and Germans, peacetime was meant to be perfect. It almost was. Readers must wait until the final page of Amanda Hodgkinson's compelling, touching and often beautifully written first novel, 22 Britannia Road, to learn whether those revelations are the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning of the Nowaks' new life in the frozen alienation of post-war Ipswich. In her simple, at times dreamy prose, Hodgkinson churns the secrets, yearnings and tensions of the immigrant couple who have only recently reconciled after seven years' separation by war. She builds the pair's hopes for the future and fears of the past in flashbacks. Silvana and Janusz met in Warsaw in 1937 and within two years have a son, Aurek, and an idyllic family life. Janusz leaves home to fight the Germans, but with the RAF in Britain, via the Balkans and France. Silvana meets the invaders, whisks her son from Warsaw and soon develops dark secrets of her own as she struggles to survive among similarly desperate refugees in rural Poland. She witnesses atrocities and is forced to forage in her forest refuge as she devotes her life to Aurek's survival. The war rages around their icy bracken until they are liberated by the British. The couple reunite in Ipswich, in 1946, but their joy is tinged with foreboding as their long-held hopes for a new future flounder under the weight of their respective recent pasts. Silvana and Aurek have bonded in their adversity but the isolated Janusz doggedly pursues his dream of creating a new family home. He works hard to be British but is unable to breach Silvana and Aurek's hugs, fathom his homesick wife's wartime past, or earn the love of a son who sees him as 'the enemy', a rival for his mother's love. Nobody mentions those letters, until Aurek comes home with a new friend, Peter, who introduces Silvana to his charming widowed father, Tony. Then more secrets threaten the Nowaks' brittle reunion. 22 Britannia Road will be a best-seller because Hodgkinson has researched her characters' odysseys as thoroughly as she trawls their emotions. But the frequency of Hodgkinson's flashbacks spoils the flow of her story, flipping from the Nowaks in Ipswich, back to Silvana in Poland and over to Janusz's side of the plot in France. A writer of Hodgkinson's readability deserves a more descriptive, linear story. 22 Britannia Road is fine holiday reading, but it could have been a classic.