'22 Britannia Road' addresses wartorn life
22 BRITANNIA ROAD, by Amanda Hodgkinson. Viking, 323 pp., $25.95
Can there really be more stories to tell of the secrets, lies and losses that followed World War II?
Apparently so. Here is another, a first novel by an English writer living in France, and it's different from the many others. The central characters of "22 Britannia Road" are Poles, not Jews. Like the Jews, they are hiding from the advancing and then occupying German army, but they are not evading deportation and death camps but conscription for the man and relocation and separation for his wife and child.
Janusz, the man, after deserting from the Polish army, makes his way to France and then to England, avoiding most of the horror of battle. In France, he is sheltered on a farm, where he succumbs to the sensuous Hélène. At first he fears, then accepts, that his wife and child are dead. Later, in love with Hélène and prepared to make a new life in France, he almost hopes they are.
Silvana, the wife, is determined to survive and protect Aurek, her child. After she impetuously flees Warsaw, she makes her way to the forest. There, living an almost feral life among the trees and animals, she and the child become all and all to one another.
Miraculously, Janusz, Silvana and Aurek survive and reunite in England after the war. Janusz has located a house for them at 22 Britannia Road, and there they will try to rebuild.
In four parallel narratives -- his and hers during the war, his and hers after -- their complicated stories unfold. Janusz's story is all of a piece -- flight, fear, love, loss. But Silvana's story is a patchwork of lies, self-delusion, guilt and hope. Janusz and Silvana become uneasy partners in a delicate pas de deux of revelation. Janusz moves with a slow and fairly steady grace, but Silvana trips herself up, trying simultaneously to hide and uncover secrets about herself and her child. Both Janusz and Silvana are sympathetic in their desire to build trust on half-truths and their eventual acceptance of the behavior wartime required or coerced from them.
Having lost everyone else, they are forced to find a solace in one another. "They are united in this at least: the overwhelming desire to find the dead in the living," Hodgkinson writes. While this might not seem to be the basis for a marriage, it may, in fact, be a positive place from which to rebuild. They share a lost country and its ghosts.
Like all of "22 Britannia Road," the ending resists easy and obvious sentimentality, while allowing for genuine feeling. Adding to the poignancy is the final shift in point of view to Aurek, the innocent child of the marriage. Hodgkinson gives him the final glance into the past, and he, it turns out, is not simply the passive repository of love and loss but has had his own wondering gaze on his parents and their lives.