The title, 22 Britannia Road, connotes such an idyllic destination. It conjures up bucolic imagery–scenes of pastoral British cottages with proper English gardens in bloom, and afternoon tea in real china cups. What I knew of the actual story –that of Polish refugees in England at the end of World War II–caused me to hesitate selecting it as my next read, knowing it would surely be painful. Yet, somehow, I felt the title guaranteed me an eventual happy ending, and so I committed myself to it. It is indeed a heartrending story of grief, guilt, and redemption–and it is utterly exquisite in the telling.
The story takes place during the years 1937 thru 1946, years that stand in stark contrast to one another, and in between lies the horrific tale of the Nowaks, a young family living in Warsaw who becomes separated by the German invasion of 1939. Methodically researched by debut author Amanda Hodgkinson, theirs is a realistic account of what millions of Europeans endured in World War II.
We are introduced to Silvana and Janusz and their seven-year old son, Aurek, in 1946, at Victoria station, London. Silvana and Aurek have travelled by ship from Poland to England through a British refugee service that is working to reunite families separated by the war. They have not seen each other in over six years. It is not an overtly emotional event. It is awkward and stilted. Silvana’s hair is shorn, her face is gaunt, and she is skeletal. Aurek is wild, animalistic, and unnaturally small for his age. Janusz realizes the happy ending that he has planned, that he has worked so hard to craft for his family, will not be easy nor immediate.
Back at 22 Britannia Road, in the town of Ipswich, the Nowaks make sincere efforts to rebuild their lives, striving for normalcy. Through a series of flashbacks that are interspersed alongside the main storyline, the experiences of Silvana, Aurek, and Janusz are slowly unveiled, and like dabs of ugly paint splattered upon a blank canvas, Ms. Hodgkinson renders the horrific portrait of their six years apart.
Throughout the miasmic buildup to the German invasion and occupation, Janusz struggles with the decision of leaving his young family to join the military that will defend Poland. Eventually, he realizes that he must go and he reluctantly boards a train, leaving Silvana and infant Aurek behind. As we find, however, not all is heroic with Janusz. His decisions show that when faced with adversity, he chooses the easier, softer way and he will have to live with the guilt of those choices, even as he works to erase the past and create a new life with his family later on.
The dense Polish forest eventually provides refuge for Silvana and Aurek. This was a reality for so many refugees who sought escape from the German and eventually Russian soldiers. Forests have been long been utilized in storytelling to depict places of evil, goodness, and magic. It is this rich setting that provides readers with such incredible plot twists and dramatic scenes. Among the trees, Silvana and Aurek alchemize into almost mythical characters. Literally, Aurek grows up in the forest, becoming one of its creatures, while Silvana transforms from a demure housewife into a hardened survivor. As a mother, I was deeply drawn to the inner strength of Silvana and the primal love for her son that empowered her. Could I have endured so much? Could I have gone that far to save my children?
22 Britannia Road is the kind of novel that stays with me for days, its characters lingering in my consciousness as if they were real–which for me is the most fulfilling kind of reading experience. I find myself, even as I write these words, standing in harsh judgment of Janusz, yet I am sympathetic towards him as well. Moreover, through Silvana, I find a deepening connection with the plight of mothers in war-torn areas everywhere. For Silvana’s story is a universal one. Be it Poland in World War II, Korea in the fifties, or current-day Afghanistan, war exists to tear families apart while mothers seek to transcend war’s afflictions and keep them intact.