It’s hard to imagine simply losing your spouse and child, but that’s what happened to Janusz, a Polish soldier in World War II. Now, six years later, he is living in London and has located Silvana and seven-year-old Aurek, who lived out the war in the forests of Poland. That’s the premise for Amanda Hodgkinson’s strong debut novel, 22 Britannia Road.
The confusion of war meant that Janusz was not long with his unit and Silvana couldn’t remain in their apartment. After the war, there must have been many people in this kind of predicament – married, no longer in their country, and unsure of whether their families were alive or dead. The premise itself is fascinating – Hodgkinson conveys the real feeling of “families torn apart” – but the way it plays out is what makes this novel so compelling.
Written in third person and alternating between the characters, 22 Britannia Road shows everyone to be fallible, yet makes each character sympathetic in his or her own way. Tragedy comes not from a single person’s fault, but rather from a set of people, bumping up against one another in difficult circumstances, each making completely understandable mistakes.
In a text with such pared-down, direct prose, readers nonetheless get a full sense of the characters in all their human complexity. My favorite relationship is Aurek and Janusz as they try to build a father-son relationship here in this strange new land. Aurek hasn’t even been in civilization for most of his life, and now he has to go to school and relate to this guy Silvana tells him is his father. Hodgkinson handles their relationship with just the right touch, avoiding sentimentality or heavy-handedness. As in the rest of the book, she sketches in the outlines and shadows, and somehow we see all the colors.
The plot resolves in a satisfying yet far from pat way. I really liked this one, and I walked away with the sense that this is how a novel ought to be written.