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Silvana and Janusz Nowak are struggling to rebuild a family life together in a new country after years apart, in this beautifully written debut novel by Amanda Hodgkinson.
They married in the late 1930s, settled in Warsaw and had a son, Aurek. Then both the German and Soviet armies invaded Poland and war was declared. He escaped to France and later, through service with the British Army, to England, while Silvana and Aurek have lived rough, foraging for survival.
22 Britannia Road is an end terrace house in Ipswich, England. Janusz hopes they can make a better future for themselves, while Silvana doesn't seem sure what she wants. After struggling to survive for so long, can she settle in this insular market town? After his early experiences, Aurek also finds it hard to adjust to sleeping on his own away from his mum, and hard to trust another strange, frightening man. Silvana and Janusz have terrible secrets they feel unable to share with each other.
A lot of the story is told in flashbacks, and I found the contrast between past and present very striking, making for a quietly compelling read, with characters whose lives, hopes, fears and dilemmas were very real. The present seems very safe, almost humdrum.
Janusz has been luckier than his wife during the war, as he escaped to France and then to England. Janusz dreams of the whole family simply fitting in to their life in a new place, putting anything that has gone before behind them. Returning to Poland under Communist rule is not an option for him, so he must make the best of his new home (house, job, town, country). There were times when I was quite frustrated by his assumptions that everyone will just fall in with what he wants, and when I felt a bit annoyed with his lack of understanding of and empathy with his wife and son. It was interesting to see how his relationship with Aurek improved later on, when he started to think about what his son wants and needs a bit more.
After the traumatic experiences of life in occupied Poland, with no home, very limited food and a host of dangers, Silvana not surprisingly finds it hard to adapt and fit in to life as an English housewife. I found her an interesting character - although she is still young, she has lived through an unimaginably difficult experience. I was quite upset when she made what seemed like a big error of judgement later in the novel.
The story alternates between the viewpoints of Silvana and Janusz. Most of the time, we don't learn Aurek's viewpoint on things directly, but from his parents' observations. Attitudes towards Aurek were one of the things I found myself judging other characters on - I didn't like Janusz much at first as he showed a real lack of understanding of the little boy, insisting that he is sent to sleep in his own room and showing a lot of jealousy. As Janusz later makes more effort for Aurek, I started to like him better.
The more serious and disturbing scenes in the novel are alternated with a little social comedy, such as the scenes showing Janusz and Silvana getting to know their neighbours in Ipswich, who are sometimes kind, but at other times show a lack of understanding and imagination, particularly Silvana, as Janusz bends over backwards to fit in to English society.
22 Britannia Road is an impressive and memorable debut, with characters real enough that I wonder about how Janusz and Silvana lived out the rest of their lives. I will certainly be looking out for Amanda Hodgkinson's next book.
This review first appeared at www.curiousbookfans, and I received a copy of this book free from Fig Tree (Penguin) for review.
22 Britannia Road is published in trade paperback, RRP £12.99, currently available for £7.79. It can be downloaded for Kindle but is a bit pricy in that form. (I recommend the library).