The year is 1946. Silvana Nowak steps off the train at London’s Victoria Station, her seven-year-old son, Aurek, in tow. The pair have emigrated from Poland to be reunited with husband and father, Janusz, after six turbulent years apart.
The young family is rent by wartime experiences, each unable to speak of what they endured. Silvana is determined that her son will have a father. Janusz, who served in the Free Polish Army, is determined to make a proper English life for his bedraggled family.
The premise of 22 Brittania Road, Amanda Hodgkinson’s first novel, is a compelling one, and nearly lives up to itself, though missing by a hair. The atrocities of World War II continue to stun 60 years on, and remain a treasury of stories for writers so inclined to rifle them. The problem is the War has spawned so many classics that entering the field requires not only talent, but bravery.
Consider this short, grievously incomplete list: Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Marge Piercy’s Gone to Soldiers, the works of Herman Wouk, Kurt Vonnegut, and Art Spiegelman. All to say, if you’re gonna write about the War, any war, you’d better be damned serious.
We are immediately told that both Silvana and Janusz are burdened by secrets. Janusz, who enlisted as a Polish soldier, fled his regiment, then shuttled across Europe from safe house to safe house before arriving in England. While in France, he had a passionate affair with Hèléne, who wanted to marry him. Torn, Janusz escaped to England, having weakly promised her he would return. The two corresponded; Janusz is foolish enough to save the letters. Naturally, Silvana finds them.
As for Silvana, we are given to understand her secret is a on a par with Styron’s eponymous Sophie. After the Germans invaded Warsaw, Silvana fled with Aurek, then a toddler, into the woods. The two became nearly feral, surviving on rats, birds, bugs, and rabbits.
Both are still nearly feral when they arrive at Ipswich’s 22 Brittania Road, the house Janusz has loving fixed up for them. They are underweight, their hair shorn due to lice. Janusz must stop them from stealing vegetables from public gardens and is shocked by how they eat—like people who may never see another meal.
Aurek, having known nothing but the woods, finds English life and its demands disagreeable. School is loathsome. So is being trapped indoors. This is a child who can imitate bird calls, snatch eggs from nests and suck their contents down raw, and shimmy trees easily.
As for Janusz, whom he calls “the enemy,” Aurek teeters between jealousy, hatred, and the beginnings of affection. Although Janusz is largely a patient, kindly parent to this difficult child, Aurek wants what he has always had: his mother. The two cling fiercely to one another, struggling to adapt to this strange place.
The English, grateful to the Poles for their wartime service, are welcoming to the “foreigners”. Their older neighbors, Doris and Gilbert Holborn, offer company and help care for Aurek. Janusz has a job in a factory, where his hard work and engineering skills are rewarded. He works harder and fantasizes about having another child, about his blooming English garden, about falling in love again with the gaunt, silent woman who is his wife.
Apart from her love for Aurek, Silvana is emotionally numb. A seamstress position in a factory is a failure: she is too distracted to keep up. At home she dutifully learns English, how to prepare tea and bake currant buns, but sleepwalks through her new life. She neither likes nor dislikes England; her life is inward, focused on Aurek and whatever happened in the forest.
Then she meets Peter Benetoni.
Peter is a widower, raising a son, Peter, Jr., who befriends Aurek. The parents meet when the boys play truant. Peter, Sr. is well known about Ipswich for his ability to get anything. Rationing in postwar England continued until 1954, and knowing a Peter Benetoni was immensely helpful if you wanted meat, liquor, or decent stockings. Peter is just such a man.
That he is of Italian descent, a foreigner himself, only endears him further to Silvana, who finds herself, filled with doubt over Hélène’s letters, falling in love. The feeling is reciprocated.
Silvana’s love for Peter sent 22 Britannia Road off the rails for me. How does a woman barely capable of setting a table, a woman who cannot see past her child or, for that matter, the past itself, fall for a guy who traffics in black market goods? A widower relying on his in-laws not only to help raise his child, but to bankroll him? Given what we know of Silvana, her love for Peter doesn’t add up. In matters pertaining to survival, particularly Aurek’s survival, Silvana is ruthless. All else is dross.
Then again, Peter, with his understanding eyes, flirtatious manner, and true kindness, manages to thaw Silvana where the well-meaning Janusz cannot. Either way, at this juncture the book dips perilously into treacly metaphors: “His hand is wide and fleshy and he encloses her own small fingers gently, the way you would hold a small bird.” On the docks “....seagulls swagger and wheel in the sky.” The upset Silvana rushes into her garden, “gulping lungfuls of damp air.”
Peter’s appearance ratchets the tension upward a notch: the family trying to pull itself together, to smooth over the past, now has another hurdle to contend with. Janusz is initially oblivious, but without spoiling the plot, I can say he learns what is happening. It is Peter, not the past, that finally sets events in motion, often in ways that may leave some readers shaking their heads, right up the happy ending.
When Silvana’s secret is finally disclosed, it disappoints, as does Janusz’s reaction. War forces people to behavioral extremes, and it’s difficult to see anybody with an iota of morality not acting as Silvana did.
Despite the above, 22 Britannia Road is not a bad book. Amanda Hodgkinson is not a bad writer—in fact, she’s a good one when not penning metaphors. Her first outing is an ambitious one meeting with mixed success.
It would be nice to say we don’t need another war novel, that we no longer need reminding of the atrocities humans are capable of visiting upon one another. But we do need novels like 22 Britannia Road more than ever before, even when they fall shy of perfection. We need to be reminded that people are living in the woods right at this moment, that people are dodging gunfire right at this moment, that a woman is being raped right at this moment, that one man is killing another, right at this moment.
We need to be reminded that the survivors of these horrors are wandering strange rooms far from their homelands, uprooted from their families, listening to unknown languages, eating strange foods, and longing for homes they’ll never see again. Janusz, Silvana, and Aurek Nowak may inhabit the past, but it is all too easy to envision them in the present.