22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

26th Apr 2011


Set half a century apart, both writers follow the outsider’s quest for acceptance.

Tremain’s migrants toil in the muddy, asparagus fields of Norfolk. Hodgkinson too opts for the geographically familiar, having grown up in East Anglia and lived in rural Suffolk before moving to France en famille.

The lure of this country comes into play later on in this novel, amidst the blood and the bullets.

Rather than the farmed fields of Suffolk and the obvious parallels with the Midi where Hodgkinson now resides, this book takes the reader to the suburban streets of Ipswich, Suffolk’s county town, a major player in the ship-building world and coastal trade for centuries.

The legacy of wartime immigration is still very much in evidence today with Polish delis scattered throughout the town, opposite the Regent Theatre, a stone’s throw from the grandeur of Christchurch Mansion and along the very multicultural Norwich Road.

22 Britannia Road opens in 1946 with a war-shaken young mother, Silvana Nowak and her skittish, 7 year old son Aurek, dressed in donated clothes, sailing from Poland to England.

Waiting for them at Victoria station is husband, Janusz. Both are apprehensive having lost sight of their former selves –the horrors they have each endured being too fresh in their minds. Silvana’s once chestnut, long locks are now grey and cropped, concealed under a headscarf.

Silvana first set eyes on her stocky, Aryan-looking beau when working as an usherette in the Kine in 1937. Janusz, just 22, leaves his new wife and son behind to fight for Poland, witnessing death at the outset and managing to lose his regiment before he even begins. News of the fall of Warsaw reaches him in his deserter’s hideout with the arrival of soldier Bruno and young Franek.

With the Russians fast approaching, France beckons. Many adventures lie in wait for Janusz there and some will add more weight to his conscience than the heaviest corpse he has ever buried.

It seems only moments after Silvana is flicking through books of American starlets and joking about ladders in her stockings that we are plunged into her desperate existence as a fugitive sheltering on bracken beds, deep in the Polish forest.

Here, from other ‘campers’ such as Gregor, she masters survival skills – foraging and skinning rabbits. When food is really scarce then nibbling bark like a rabbit is the last resort.

With the Nowaks’ mimicry of the lives of animals it is no surprise that Aurek takes on the feral grunts and wild behaviour of the creatures of this habitat. Silvana’s raison d’être is always to survive in order that she may protect him.

Eastern Ipswich sustained its fair share of bomb damage, being in direct line to the docks. In spite of it being next to a bomb site, Janusz has a good feeling about end of terrace Number 22 Britannia Road that he has decorated with pride, ready for his family.

With the help of keen and interested neighbour Doris, Silvana makes a good stab at English domesticity. What is interesting it that it takes an Italian immigrant Tony Benetoni, the spivvish charmer and his corpulent son, Peter – a welcome playmate for Aurek –  to ease Silvana’s adjustment to life in England.

Hodgkinson analyses the couples’ estrangement in peacetime as they try to come to terms with the unconventional paths they took six years before and the secrets that may well suffocate them.

This book was chosen as one of the Waterstone’s best fiction debuts for 2011. As a first offering I find this novel a tour de force. The threads of Janusz and Silvanas’ lives during separation are interwoven with such deftness of touch that as a reader you really do feel the characters’ pain. But some readers of early copies have found this novel too bleak and desolate to swallow.

At times, Silvana’s plight has echoes of Dr Zhivago. If Janusz ever developed a taste for foie gras I’d be surprised after his experience as a deserter. A vivid, theatrical scene in the forest had a touch of Narnia about it; I’ll let you experience this for yourself.

22 Britannia Road is published by Fig Tree later this week. Buy it in paperback for £8.83, and for Kindle for £8.99.

Rating: 5/5

Recommended for: Those who have jumped ship to forge a life abroad, anyone living near Ipswich & or from Poland/Italy, those whose relatives played a part in the Second World War.

Other recommended reading: Rose Tremain’s The Road Home and for another tale of love and the test of war, Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

Rebecca Smeaton