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22 Britannia Road

by Amanda Hodgkinson

Pamela Dorman Books | Viking | 2011 | 323 pages | $26.96

Reviewed by Sarah Vogelsong

One unfortunate legacy of the Cold War is that even today, Americans’ understanding of the Second World War is almost entirely focused on Western Europe and the Pacific theatre. Although the Iron Curtain has long since fallen, our knowledge of Eastern Europe has remained vague. Amanda Hodgkinson’s first novel, 22 Britannia Road, lifts this veil to provide an occasionally fascinating glimpse into the Eastern European experience of the war through the eyes of a young couple, Janusz and Silvana Nowak, and their young son Aurek.

The story opens with Silvana and Aurek’s arrival in England and reunion with Janusz and focuses on the struggles that all three undergo to rebuild their lives after the trauma of war, which is described in flashbacks. Rather unconventionally for wartime literature, Hodgkinson casts the war in a light of survival rather than heroism.

22 Britannia Road provides none of the familiar narratives of underground resistance, soldiers facing death in the trenches, or grim Jewish ghettoes and concentration camps. Instead, the novel focuses on the cruel realities of displacement, with both Janusz and Silvana being effectively cut loose from any community or social ties.

Shortly after enlisting in the Polish Army, Janusz is separated from his regiment, and when Warsaw falls to the Germans, he is forced to flee Poland. He slowly finds his way to France and, eventually, England, where he is absorbed into an engineer corps. Silvana’s experiences are harsher. She, too, flees Warsaw and spends the war years in a desperate search for safety for herself and Aurek, stumbling from one temporary shelter to the next and finally seeking protection in the forest.

The story is largely one of isolation, to a perhaps improbable extent. Throughout the novel, characters step in to aid both Janusz and Silvana, but most of these individuals are untrustworthy, motivated by personal desire and greed, and often strangely uninterested in the war beyond its effect on their individual lives.

Somehow, none of the people Hodgkinson portrays seem to look beyond themselves. They articulate little loyalty to their country and speak even less of right and wrong, their faith, or their fellow men. As a result, the story lacks depth: unconnected to any broader ideas and asking no questions about why people behave as they do in war, or how the human spirit can survive such horrors, it provides little beyond an account of three people being swept from one place to the next.

In the absence of any deeper novelistic framework, certain sections bog down, particularly those recounting Silvana’s efforts to stay alive in wartime Poland.

One of the strongest points of 22 Britannia Road is the facility with which Hodgkinson switches between past and present, allowing the reader to see how closely the two are intertwined for her characters.

In order to continue their lives, both Silvana and Janusz must come to terms with the things they have seen and experienced, but their memories pose a great obstacle. Dialogue is scarce in this book, but the constant presence of the past perhaps explains its absence: Silvana and Janusz have both become so isolated that they are unable to communicate with each other.

However, the heavy reliance on memory can make it difficult for the reader to engage with the characters. Silvana in particular hardly seems to try to move on from her experiences, and after two hundred pages, my sympathy had worn thin.

22 Britannia Road is clearly a first novel. Hodgkinson falls into many of the traps that beleaguer young writers: telling her readers exactly how a character feels instead of allowing the story to tell itself naturally, relying too heavily on plot twists, and not using dialogue effectively.

The dramatic crux falls too close to the end of the novel, and the story seems to end more because Hodgkinson wants it to, rather than at a logical point.  Nevertheless, Hodgkinson shows promise—her subject is original and her skill in switching between perspectives and times is impressive. It will be interesting to see her development as a writer in novels to come.

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