BookBrowse Reviews 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

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22 Britannia Road

A Novel

by Amanda Hodgkinson

22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson X
22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2011, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2012, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Sacha Dollacker

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The story of one family's struggle to reclaim their lives after World War II

Amanda Hodgkinson's debut 22 Britannia Road deftly explores how a family survives war and if the past can be reclaimed. Broadly, the idea of reclaiming the past is a tantalizing one, but through the catastrophic lens of World War II, this notion becomes both heartbreaking and poignant. All of the characters wrestle with how they can recapture the life and dreams that existed before the war, but the struggle is the most difficult for Silvana and Janusz, a young married couple who are separated during the war and reunited at the end. Both Silvana and Janusz have disastrous secrets that threaten the heart of their marriage, yet both are beguiled by the thought that their relationship can be salvaged if they focus on their son, work hard, and recapture the romance of their first days together.

Hodgkinson's use of flashback intensifies the narrative, as the story jumps back and forth between Silvana and Janusz's adjustment to life at 22 Britannia Road and their experiences before and during the war. To augment the difference between the past and the present, Hodgkinson narrates the wartime vignettes in past tense and the British sections in present tense. The immediacy of the present tense forces us to feel the urgency of Silvana and Janusz's transition to British life, while the past tense of the war and pre-war sections casts the atmosphere of a fairy tale.

The impact of these style choices creates two separate moods that allow for a greater understanding of the characters and their experiences. It also draws into sharp relief the differences between life before and during the war - a life they can only now access through memory - and the challenges of conforming to the British way of living. Clearly, peace is always preferable to war, but as Hodgkinson spins the tales of Janusz's time in France and Silvana's life in the Polish forest, one gets the sense that life after the war is safer but less free than it was before.

Though the flashbacks provide insight into both Silvana and Janusz's lives, Silvana's story is the most intriguing, and Hodgkinson slowly discloses key points about her past. Silvana is not only interesting because of her hardship during the war but also because of her focus on her son. Janusz wants to be a perfect British father to Aurek - the odd child who clings to his mother and refers to his father as the 'enemy' - but the six years apart have created a gulf of separation between them. Janusz proceeds cautiously with the boy, allowing him to take the lead, but his sense of identity does not center on Aurek. Silvana, in contrast, is dependent on Aurek in a profound way. While they lived in the forest during the war, Silvana fought to keep Aurek alive, and her entire world, her sense of self, now revolves around sustaining her son.

Life in post-war Britain requires a different kind of mothering, and this stark transition throws Silvana into tumult. She loses her moorings and questions her relationship with Janusz, but the need to protect Aurek balances her. As we see Silvana traverse the fault lines in her family, trying to determine where she stands between son and husband, we are able to understand the strength that is required to recover from war. Silvana's family is alive, but the heart that makes it a bonded unit has been eaten away by six years of devastating separation.

As Silvana questions her role as a mother and a wife, we see a woman fighting to protect an idea of family that she herself has never experienced but that she knows is the key to their survival. Hodgkinson's portrayal of Silvana's reconstruction - of herself and her family - is masterful.

22 Britannia Road is a beautiful story about the lengths to which a family will go to heal itself. Told in lyrical prose with sharp dialogue and precise detail, we are brought into a world emerging from catastrophe and into a family that will do anything to protect itself.

This review was originally published in May 2011, and has been updated for the April 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
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