22 BRITANNIA ROAD by Amanda Hodgkinson

Book Quote:

“I waited for you,” he whispers, and believes what he says. He’ll make this work. There are a thousand questions in his head. He is hungry to know what her life has been. He cannot understand how she survived living in a forest, although he has heard of whole villages that abandoned their homes and took shelter in the trees. Every question that comes to him dies before it reaches his lips. It is not the time for questions yet.”

Book Review:

Review by Lynn Harnett  (JUN 3, 2011)

In Hodgkinson’s first novel a young Polish couple and their 7-year-old son Aurek, separated for six years during WWII, reunite in England at war’s end in 1946.

If only it were that simple.

Janusz Nowak is eager to leave the war behind and embrace an English way of life. After locating his wife and son in a Polish refugee camp, he arranges to bring them to England. While waiting he rents a house and begins to make a home, papering and painting, buying furniture, creating a real English garden, meeting the neighbors. And all the while thinking of Helene, the French girl he fell in love with during the war.

His wife, Sylvana, gray-haired at 29, is drained. “She had been lost and he had found her. He must have thought he was reaching back into the past; that she would be as she was when he left her, his young wife, red hair pinned up in curls, a smile on her face, and their darling son in her arms. He couldn’t know that the past was dead and she was the ghost of the wife he once had.” She makes the journey primarily to give Aurek a father.

Aurek, severely traumatized, recognizing his father’s immediate threat to his exclusive relationship with his mother, privately dubs Janusz “the enemy.” On their first night together in England, Aurek is confined to his own room while his mother and Janusz attempt a tentative reunion.

Janusz pushes thoughts of Helene out of his head as Sylvana responds to him. “His loneliness falls away from him like unbuttoned clothes. Maybe this will be all right. Maybe they can do this.”

Then a different touch in the dark sends him scrambling out of bed. “Janusz turns on the main light and the child looks at him, staring him down with wide, dark eyes. There’s a possessive, adult fierceness in the boy’s gaze that leaves Janusz speechless for a moment.” Brushing past him, Aurek climbs into their bed to nurse.

From this inauspicious beginning the story drops back to weave between past and present. War experiences emerge in alternating points of view from Janusz and Sylvana, while the passages in the present encompass all three points of view. From the beginning it’s clear that their unshared past is full of horrors and secrets and as their separate stories take shape, the secrets multiply, blighting their chances of a shared future.

After Janusz leaves to join the Polish army Sylvana waits a little too long to leave Warsaw. Raped by a German soldier, she finally flees with her baby but in all the chaos she cannot get to family, but only runs, directionless.

Meanwhile, Janusz is soon separated from his unit during a German bombing raid and wanders off by himself, mildly shell-shocked. He takes possession of a dead woman’s cottage and passes his days in a limbo of indecision until two more soldiers find him and the three join forces to stay one step ahead of the advancing Germans and find an army to fight in.

Janusz has seen plenty of death and atrocity during his war, but we know from the start that Sylvana and Aurek’s war has been worse. Hodgkinson tells her story in lyrical, straightforward prose. Without a shred of bathos or preachiness she emphasizes the timeless irony – that in war-torn countries it’s the non-combatants who suffer most, preyed upon by invaders and often their own neighbors as well.

Janusz, as a soldier, has a network of people who help him, shelter him and hail him as a hero. Sylvana does not encounter much charity or kindness, but she learns to survive, given the luck that is really the only essential for survival. No one is going to laud her as a hero for it, however.

And when the war is done Sylvana’s and especially Aurek’s new skills are ill suited for English suburban life. Aurek, in particular, with his talent for bird noises, his lack of table manners and his feral antisocial behavior, is a misfit not likely to make friends or help cement a family.

Hodgkinson portrays all three with sympathy and a depth of understanding that pulls the reader into the immediacy of their lives. Although we know they can never really become a family while separated by so many secrets, we also know that revealing those secrets would destroy their future as well. How the author resolves this dilemma will have readers on the edge of their seats.

A deeply affecting, complex novel, driven by primal truths and the subtleties of character, Hodgkinson’s debut is a standout.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 48 readers
PUBLISHER: Pamela Dorman Books (April 28, 2011)
REVIEWER: Lynn Harnett
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Amanda Hodgkinson
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer

The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard


June 3, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Debut Novel, Facing History, Reading Guide, United Kingdom

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.