A six year separation for newlyweds is an eternity. The terrors of war may be too much to overcome. Amanda Hodgkinson’s 22 Britannia Road is the new English address for Polish war survivors Janusz, the returned soldier, and Silvana, the wife who spent the years trying to survive by hiding in the forest with a young son.
As they try to renew their life together in a new country, the memories and horrors of their years apart intrude. Janusz keeps secret letters from Hélène, his French lover, and Silvana has her own secret that she fears to reveal. Aurek, their son, slowly becomes the most resilient promise for the family’s survival as he changes from the feral “foundling from the forest” into a civilized life reunited with his father – complete with a treehouse in the backyard, an English garden, and a school friend. But he too is haunted by “…the things he has seen…he doesn’t want to think about them…”
Hodgkinson bases the story at the English address, but slowly weaves in the missing six years for both Janusz and Silvana, telling enough of their wartime trauma to justify their anxieties, but leaving some unsaid so that you want to keep reading to discover the atrocities you suspect. When Janusz tells his story, his soldier’s life is cast as a contrast to Silvana’s strength through her constant terror.
“…the day Janusz left her in Warsaw was the day one life ended and another began…
Neither is the person they were when Janusz married the pregnant Silvana, and you will keep reading to see if any part of that relationship is salvageable. Janusz works hard to become foreman at the factory, and hopes to have another child. Silvana, numb from her years trying to survive, does her best to bake currant buns and create a family life for her son, until she discovers Hélène‘s letters.
Tony, a resourceful Italian widower who owns a pet store and dabbles in the black market – his young son Peter is Aurek’s friend – silently woos Silvana, eventually leading her to confide in him, and then reveal her awful secret to Janusz.
At this point, the story stops being compelling and becomes melodramatic. Hodgkinson draws out the denouement so much that the eventual expected ending seems overdue. Despite the overcooked finale, 22 Britannia Road can hold its place with similar recent war stories – The Postmistress and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. Hodgkinson reveals the harsh realities of survivors who cannot go home again, yet somehow manage to create a life where they will never be entirely comfortable – even if they replace the English garden with Polish birch trees.
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