22 Britannia Road
- Amanda Hodgkinson
- Pamela Dorman Books
- 336 pp.
- Reviewed by Lawrence De Maria
- May 27, 2011
This novel which follows a Polish family in its journey of survival during and after World War II undoubtedly will be compared to William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice.
Reviewed by Lawrence De Maria
It is inevitable that Amanda Hodgkinson’s 22 Britannia Road will elicit a comparison to William Styron’s shattering Sophie’s Choice.
Unlike Sophie’s Choice, Hodgkinson’s fine debut novel is ultimately a tale of redemption and hope. But since it also deals with subjects most of us would rather not think about, readers should not expect a day at the beach. One can only hope that should 22 Britannia Road ever be made into a movie, an actress of the stature of Meryl Streep can be found to play the role of Silvana Nowak, the singular Polish mother whose devotion to her child during and after World War II is beautifully rendered by Hodgkinson.
The novel starts in postwar England, where Silvana and her seven-year-old son, Aurek, a feral lad if there ever was one, are resettled after six years of living like hunted animals, mainly in forests, trying to avoid the obvious danger of predatory German and Russian soldiers, and the not-so-obvious menace of fellow countrymen also driven to desperation. In ravaged Poland, food and shelter are scarce and often traded for sex or servitude. Silvana and Aurek survive because she is willing to do anything to protect him. And even then survival is mostly the result of luck, a word with little relevance to their experience.
Once in England, there is both food and shelter, although Hodgkinson’s description of post-war British austerity will come as a revelation to a generation that thinks it has it rough in a recession that would have passed for paradise in 1946. That people (in a nation that won the war!) could take such pleasure in a cup of tea, a dollop of jam, a day in the park, a ragged coat, a shot of whiskey or a ride in a third-hand car is a sobering reminder of a time of real want. A time when the offer of a cigarette, an affordable “luxury,” was the way strangers from different cultures broke the ice. A time when you needed a doctor’s note to get an extra coal allowance to keep a sick child warm.
Hodgkinson’s depiction of British life and customs reflect her own upbringing in a small fishing village in Essex in the 1970’s. But her mastery of the sights, sounds, smells and minutia of life in Poland and France before and during the war suggests herculean research.
When Silvana lands in England she is reunited with her husband, Janusz, who left her and their infant son in Warsaw when he was called up to fight the advancing Wehrmacht in 1939. Once together again, the Nowak family strives to adapt to an alien culture. Silvana is given a “donkey stone” to polish her front steps like a good English housewife. Janusz is determined to out- British the British, from his accent to his garden. He is also determined to create, after six years of separation, a stable home for his wife and child in their small house at 22 Britannia Road. In this he has a natural ally in Silvana, whose desire to provide a father for her son is the vision that kept them alive.
Janusz’s attempts to win the affection of Aurek, who regards him as an “enemy,” provide some of the most moving scenes in the book, as do vignettes where common English folk show their new neighbors uncommon kindness. (The kindness, and courage, of strangers is not limited to England; none of the Nowaks would have survived in Europe without the sacrifices made by others.)
Wartime memories and guilt constantly threaten the brittle tranquility of the Nowak family. Janusz’s journey from Poland to England was in its way a tale no less harrowing than that of Silvana and Aurek. His war in the East was brief and confusing and his escape across Europe a series of near catastrophes. During one brief respite, in France, he falls in love with a farm girl before making it to England to rejoin the war against the Nazis. In war-torn Europe, when men and women had no idea if their families still existed, they took love – and sex – where they could. In many places there was always the possibility a truck full of German or Russian soldiers bent on rape, murder and plunder was just over the next hill. In fact, most of the men and women Janusz, Silvana and Aurek meet during their respective journeys die – often quite horribly – and most of those who don’t just disappear into the fog of history.
Silvana’s discovery of her husband’s wartime infidelity (why do people insist on keeping incriminating letters, or today, I suppose, emails?) devastates her, although why it should, given her own experiences and a much crueler secret that she harbors, is somewhat unrealistic.
At just over 300 pages 22 Britannia Road bites off a bit more than it can chew, covering a decade, roughly 1937-47, that ranks among the most momentous in human history. It is certainly no War and Peace. Indeed, War in Pieces would be a more appropriate analogy. The narrative is not linear and switches back and forth in time and place, alternating the tribulations of Silvana and Janusz. Much is necessarily revealed in flashbacks. The episodic nature of the novel may be off-putting to some readers.
Most of 22 Britannia Road is beautifully written. There are exceptions, lines that would be more appropriate in a bodice-ripping Romance novel. Much superior, and more typical of Hodgkinson’s still-developing talent, is this description of Aurek’s recollection of egg-collecting with his mother in Poland’s forests, where sometimes the eggs were still full of blood or the beginnings of birds. “They picked the shells off those and cooked them on a stick over a fire. He will not mention the fledglings he stole from nests or the strips of birch bark he chewed on in the dead of winter. Even a child knows that it is shameful to admit to that kind of hunger.”
Sophie’s Choice was the story of a woman who, in the end, could not live with the decision she was forced to make during World War II. In 22 Britannia Road, Silvana forces herself to live because of her choice. And while no one with any humanity could fault Styron’s Sophie for taking her own life, Silvana’s perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds is ennobling.
Lawrence De Maria was a senior editor and writer at The New York Times and Forbes. His many Page 1 articles led the Times’ Pulitzer-nominated coverage of the 1987 stock market crash. He is currently living in Naples, FL, where he writes short stories and novels, as well as book and film reviews.