Even though I have heard many stories by now about writers, début novels, and how the first published novel is not necessarily the first finished novel, I am still impressed when début authors manage to publish wonderful novels the first time out. Amanda Hodgkinson’s 22 Britannia Road is one such début, exploring what happens to a Polish family attempting reunion, and building a new life in England, after being separated for six years during World War II.
When Janusz Nowak finds his family in a refugee camp, he is told that his wife, Silvana, had been living and hiding in the woods outside Warsaw with their six-year-old son Aurek. Janusz has secrets from the war, and Silvana, only a shadow of her former vibrant self, has secrets of her own. However, the couple is determined to put the horrors of war behind them to raise their son. Janusz has bought and painstakingly prepared a home for them all at 22 Britannia Road, and Silvana, fixated on Aurek having a relationship with his dad, goes about learning to keep house, until the secrets from the intervening years threaten to to destroy the tenuous hold they have on being a family.
Hodgkinson has a lot going on in this story, not least of which is beautiful prose, crystal clear imagery and complex characters. The past and present stories of Janusz, Silvana and Aurek unfold in alternating chapters that are captivating, and the weight of what they have all endured is evident in the present even as we learn of the past experiences which have transformed them into who they are. Different characters and time periods were seamlessly woven, and my interest in the story was always present no matter which character I was with, whether in the past or the future.
More than anything, the characters and being able to feel the depth of their emotions, what they hope to attain in their new lives, made reading this novel incredibly moving and worthwhile. The love that Silvana has for her son is fierce (the bond strengthened by trauma), and Aurek’s slow adjustment from starvation and his wild child ways is carefully illustrated, as is Janusz’s mostly patient manner, mixed with some frustration and high hopes for his family and relationship with his troubled son. There is a beauty in the way that Hodgkinson signals the story to the reader about past and future events. I had definite ideas about what may have happened to them all, and it was rather nerve-racking see what would bear out, and what would not in this heartbreaking yet satisfying read. Recommended.