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22 Britannia Road: A Novel Hardcover – April 28, 2011

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, April 2011: By the end of World War II, Silvana is a ghost of the wife Janusz once had. She and their 7-year-old son Aurek travel from Poland to England to reunite their family--a family that has been separated for 6 years. That's where 22 Britannia Road, Amanda Hodgkinson's stunning debut novel, begins. As the past unfolds from multiple points of view, it becomes clear that despite their determination to make a fresh start, the hidden secrets of the past threaten to destroy Silvana and Janusz's dreams of becoming a family once again. The irreversible events that passed during their years of separation still linger, including the horrors of war, Janusz's betrayal by a love affair with another woman, and the devastating secret that Silvana will do anything to conceal. Hodgkinson's poetic voice is impossible to forget, and the shocking and hopeful ending of her remarkable historical novel will leave readers reeling--and satisfied. --Miriam Landis

Author Q&A with Amanda Hodgkinson

Amanda Hodgkinson

Q: What drew you to this particular story of Polish World War II survivors living in England?

A: As a child, I was always fascinated when the adults around me talked about World War II. These were older family members who had lived through it and I would try to stay quiet so I could listen without being discovered. Their voices changed to lower registers, there were weighted silences in the conversations, sad looks, secretive whispering and then somebody would notice me and send me out to play, their voice swinging up a register to convey a gaiety they probably didn’t feel. I would go to bed at night, sick at heart thinking about these stories, and wonder how the world ever managed to get back to the normal after that war.

Looking back, I think I never stopped wondering. Years later, I was standing in my kitchen and heard a Russian woman on the radio, describing her experiences of being a child during the war. “We were so hungry,” she said, “we ate the bark of the silver birch trees.” An image came to me, so clear and strong, it was more like a memory than an act of my imagination. I wrote down what I saw; a young woman in a silver birch forest. I had begun to write my novel.

Q: From Silvana’s exile in the forest to the petrol rations in post-war Ipswich, you paint a vivid picture of the novel’s historical settings and events. What sort of research did you do to get the details right?

A: I balanced my own imaginative input with research. I read social history books on the war and the postwar period, including a lot of oral histories on Polish immigrant experiences. I also read wonderful Polish poets like Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rózewicz, among others. I studied Polish fairytales and classic Polish literature from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. I discovered tango music had been very popular in Poland during the thirties, so I listened to some fabulous clips on YouTube and imagined myself there, in the 1930s, dancing at a club in Warsaw, just like Hanka, one of the characters in the book tells Silvana about. I immersed myself in books, music and literature and then I put aside all research and let my imagination go to work. Whenever I was unsure about a scene, I turned to my own thoughts and feelings, relying on my ability to imagine a moment and on my empathy for the characters, rather than history books, and I think this approach helped me really understand my characters and the time.

Q: What does the title, the address of the home Janusz chooses for his reunited family, represent to you symbolically? Why that particular address?

A: I wanted a very ordinary address. A typical English home. You can find a Britannia Road in most English towns and there is no mistaking the pronounced sense of place in this address. Janusz wants what the address offers. A new life and a new country. Ironically, this address, with its connotations of national identity and pride, also serves to highlight the sense of displacement Janusz, Silvana and Aurek, as an immigrant family, must have felt in a small town in Britain. Another reason I used an address was to show how important home was to the characters. For me, the novel is about finding a home, physically, psychologically and metaphorically. Home is a small word that holds within itself complex meanings. Change one letter and you have the word hope. And Janusz, Silvana and Aurek hope to make a home together.

Q: A powerful theme in this book is the pain of survival—even Janusz, who had a relatively easy escape from Poland, suffers from having outlived Hélène and other loved ones. What personal discoveries did you make about this theme while writing the book?

A: Writing the book and researching it made me very aware of how people are still suffering under wars. The mass movement of displaced people around the world continues and the number of children who are orphaned and families disrupted and broken by war does not diminish.

Q: You do an exceptional job capturing the psyche of young Aurek, who has clearly been traumatized by his experiences. Did you draw from case studies of children with similar experiences, or did you find your way to this character instinctually?

A: I wrote Aurek very instinctively. I felt I knew the boy from the moment I first wrote a small, tentative description of him, crouching in the back garden at 22 Britannia Road. I read Through The Eyes of the Innocents: Children Witness World War II by Emmy E Werner, which conveys the heartbreaking experiences of children, and that fed my own understanding of what Aurek might have been through but really, when I was writing Aurek, I found I could connect with him best on an emotional level. So I wrote what he felt. I tried to go beyond language with him and bring out his primitive sense of survival, his desire to feel loved and his need to love others.

From Publishers Weekly

In her powerful debut, Hodgkinson takes on the tale of a family desperately trying to put itself back together after WWII. Silvana and Janusz have only been married a few months when the war forces them apart. Silvana and their infant son, Aurek, leave Poland and disappear into the forests of Eastern Europe, where they bear witness to German atrocities. Meanwhile Janusz, the sole survivor of his slaughtered military unit, flees to France. There, he takes up with a local girl and, though he loves her, awaits the war's end so that he can go in search of his wife and son. He eventually finds them in a refugee camp and they travel to England together, where they attempt to put the past behind them. But the secrets they carry pull at the threads of their fragile peace. Hodgkinson alternates viewpoints to relay the story of three desperate characters, skillfully toggling between the war and its aftermath with wonderfully descriptive prose that pulls the reader into a sweeping tale of survival and redemption. (May)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books; First Edition edition (April 28, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670022632
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670022632
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 6.1 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (157 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #883,002 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Amanda Hodgkinson was born in Burnham-on-Sea, England, and earned an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. She lives with her husband and two daughters in a farmhouse in the southwest of France. 22 Britannia Road was her first novel and became an award winning, international bestseller. Her critically acclaimed second novel Spilt Milk, was published in 2014. Amanda is a contributing author for 'Grand Central,' an anthology of postwar stories of love and reunion compiled by ten bestselling authors.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

252 of 265 people found the following review helpful By Philly gal VINE VOICE on April 28, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This is the story of a Polish couple, Silvana and Janusz and their son Aurek. They met and married in 1937. As both the Russians and the Germans invaded Poland in 1940 the couple is separated. He joins the military and after a long journey, typical of Poles who chose to fight on after the defeat of their country, ends up in the RAF in England. She initially raped by a German soldier, flees with their son to a live in the forests of Poland. The story opens in 1946 as the couple is reunited after their six year separation. Building on the memories of a deeply loving relationship before the war the couple tries to reestablish their family life. Each has secrets that they do not share with thevother. These secrets, the crux of the story, are slowly revealed in two separate threads. No more spoilers from me on the story!

This book is vividly written and has complexity to the plot that continues to draw you in right up until the last chapter. The long lasting effects of war on people are brilliantly portrayed in the story. In post war Britain, the couple has every advantage- an intact family, a house, a car, a good job - but the lingering effects of what happened to them during the war destroy their chances to go forward. The son has been deeply influenced by his time in the forests avoiding both Germans and Russians and living off the land. In one scene his father shows him how to collect and save birds eggs and the boy can only think of how he wants to eat the eggs contents as he did so often in the forests. He has a particularly difficult time socializing and entering into normal relationships. It was heartbreaking and at times almost too sad to bear. In the end though this story is a triumph of the human spirit over adversity.
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100 of 111 people found the following review helpful By NC Reader on May 13, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
That is how Janusz describes his wife Silvana as he embraces her in a scene about two-thirds through this book, and it seems to be the first insightful thing he thinks about her. I chose this book from the Vine program because it sounded like a wonderful, moving premise for a novel, but I was disappointed. I expected it to be sad, but I also expected to feel for and empathize with characters who had been through so much. I found I just couldn't care about Janusz and Silvana; when they first meet as teenagers, they are just a couple of horny kids, feeling an instant physical attraction and apparently not much else. Silvana comes from a miserable, dysfunctional peasant family and seems motivated only by the desire to escape; Janusz seems to ask her to marry him out of duty, suggesting perhaps he's gotten her pregnant. Either way, I didn't feel like I knew the characters - what were their likes, dislikes, dreams, motivations? They seemed very young and unformed, understandably so, but the love they shared did not feel strong enough to last through six years of war.

I agree with another reviewer here who noted that Janusz' time spent wandering around Europe before finally getting to England seems far-fetched. Janusz seems quite amenable to staying put wherever he lands and sitting out the war - first the goose woman's cottage, then Helene's parents' farm - he seems quite weak and easily lead and just goes along. Granted, his life has been totally turned upside down, but I don't get the impression he's burning to fight for his country, or to see his wife and child again, or to do much of anything, except have an affair with Helene.
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46 of 54 people found the following review helpful By Roger Brunyate TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 1, 2011
Format: Hardcover
The place is Ipswich, in the East of England. Janusz Novak, who has escaped from Poland at the beginning of the Second World War and served as an engineer with the Royal Air Force, has taken a house with a small garden at 22 Britannia Road. By some miracle, his wife Silvana has also survived and is coming to join him, together with their son Aurek, whom Janusz has not seen since he was a baby. It seems a happily-ever-after ending, the family reunited. Only this is not the ending, but a new beginning, and not an easy one.

There are at least three layers to the story here, and I am not sure that they benefit by being laid on top of one another. One is the simple immigrant story that has been told many times, with different specifics (Andrea Levy's SMALL ISLAND being one magnificent example): what is it like to make a new life in a strange country, especially one beset by rationing, austerity measures, and labor unrest? Amanda Hodgkinson handles this effectively and without fuss. I could imagine Silvana's difficulties with the neighbors and the shops, Aurek's problems at school, and Janusz' determination to make a proper English home. I could imagine them, but not truly feel them in my gut; Hodgkinson's descriptions seem accurate rather than achingly personal.

The second layer was the one that moved me most: how people come back together after a separation. Janusz and Silvana were only just married when Aurek was born, and had hardly been tested as a couple. They are separated at the start of the war under circumstances where neither even knows that the other is alive. Now, six years later, they come together almost as strangers.
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