May 2011

A moving depiction of one war-torn family

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The rippling effects of war lie at the heart of Amanda Hodgkinson’s haunting debut novel, as one fractured family tries to build a new life together while each member struggles to bury memories from the past.

As 22 Britannia Road opens, Silvana Nowak, a 27-year-old Polish woman, and her son Aurek are on a boat to England where her husband Janusz awaits them. They have been apart for six years, since Aurek was one. Janusz joined the Polish army at the start of WWII, lost his regiment and ended up first in France, then England, where the RAF helped him locate the family he left behind.

Silvana and Aurek have spent most of the past six years hiding in the forests outside Warsaw, afraid to return there after the Germans arrived. Aurek has become a feral child, fearful around strangers and speaking with animal and bird sounds. Silvana is fiercely protective of him, as he is the only thing she has left from Poland and their years of deprivation. As she travels to England, she worries about how Janusz will react to her—“the ghost of the wife he once had.”

Janusz worries, too, about whether they will ever be able to be a family again. He had a lover in France who, though killed in the war, he knows he can never forget. Of Janusz, Hodgkinson writes, “He can understand nothing of the last six years . . . the way he left Warsaw and didn’t go back . . . the love he feels for another woman.” He knows he can never share this with Silvana, but he also knows he must try, so he buys a small house at 22 Britannia Road in Ipswich, plants an English garden and hopes they can somehow morph into a typical English family once reunited.

Hodgkinson moves back and forth in time between Poland, France and Ipswich, adeptly juxtaposing poetic descriptions of their pre-war lives with horrific memories from their years spent apart. This moving tale of what war has wrought on one family captures the reader from beginning to end, when these flawed characters finally come to their own fragile peace.

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