World War II has just ended and Silvana Novak and her eight-year-old son Aurek arrive in Ipswich, England, where they are reunited with Silvana’s husband, Janusz, after six years of estrangement. Silvana and Aurek have spent that time hiding from both the Germans and the Russians in the forests of Poland. Janusz, meanwhile, escaped to France before settling in England.
Relieved and deeply grateful to have his family back, Janusz has set up a brand-new life for them in a small house in a town in East Anglia. He’s found work in an engineering firm and he’s hoping they can start, despite what they have lived through. Aurek, who’s grown up eating raw bird’s eggs and tree bark, will have to learn how to tie his shoes and interact with children his age. Silvana will have to readjust to living in a real house, with a real bed and bathtub. Fiercely protective of her son, she will have to learn how to trust other people again, including her husband. Slowly but surely, they embark on this process together: Silvana finds work at an area factory; Janusz teaches them English; Aurek begins school and makes a new friend. They start to socialize with their neighbors who seem to accept them as one of their own. And Janusz builds a beautiful English garden with a treehouse for Aurek.
Yet even as their shared dream of postwar life takes shape, the past continues to haunt them. Both Silvana and Janusz are harboring painful secrets about what really happened during their separate wars. And these secrets are threatening to tear their fragile new bond apart.
In Amanda Hodgkinson’s commanding debut novel, these empathetically drawn, emotionally damaged characters must learn how to recreate a family under the most difficult circumstances, when the horrors of war have stripped them of everything but their most primal instincts. By turns poetic and grippingly suspenseful, 22 Brittannia Road is a heart-wrenching story of how love and forgiveness can pave the way to new life.
Amanda Hodgkinson was born in Burnham-on-Sea, England, and earned an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. She now lives with her husband and two daughters in a farmhouse in the southwest of France.
Q. What drew you to this particular story of Polish World War II survivors living in England?
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.
The stories were about families and relationships. Mostly they were about the difficulties of people coming back together in peacetime. Of damaged men coming home from war and women trying to pick up the pieces. Of families broken by separations and children born out of wedlock. Of British GI brides waving good-bye to their families, joining American husbands, and of European immigrants, pale and gaunt, arriving on ships, hoping to begin new, safe lives in postwar Britain. 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 postwar 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?
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 fairy tales and classic Polish literature from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. I discovered that 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 as Hanka, one of the characters in the book talks to 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. The story of what happened to both Janusz and Silvana when they were separated for six years is told through flashbacks, alternating with the present moment in which they have been reunited. How did you decide on this structure for the narrative? Did you write chronologically and reorder the scenes, or did you always know it would be told this way?
It was very important to me to find the right structure for this novel. It wasn’t enough to tell the story. I knew I wanted a structure that added an emotional intensity to the novel and was part of the novel itself.
First, I made the decision to use present tense for the characters when they begin their new life in Britain, because it is, in a way, an uncertain tense. Present tense seems to me to unroll in front of your eyes and has a way of showing that everything can change—that nothing is certain. I used past tense for the back stories because they were stories that needed to be “laid down” in order to help make sense of the fragile present that Silvana, Aurek, and Janusz inhabit.
Alternating between flashbacks and the present allowed me to show, all the way through the novel, how the past affects the present, how the decisions the characters make are in many ways, driven by what has come before. At the end of the novel, Silvana tells Janusz the story of her war.
“She lays it out like a book, filling in details, moving back and forth over time until the whole six years they have been apart are accounted for. Some of it is hard to hear, but he listens. He does not turn away from her. She says she wants no more secrets between them.”
For me, this was Silvana revealing the structure of the novel and keeping the reader close to the characters. I really wanted the reader to share these people’s lives. So this small scene becomes, for me, a confessional moment that reveals the structure. There are no more secrets, not even in the putting together of the novel.
Writing the scenes, I worked chronologically, from the moment Silvana and Janusz met before the war to the moment they meet again after the war. Then I continued writing the present tense story in Britain with the knowledge of what had gone before. Finally, I folded both stories together. In order for the back story and the present story to be as tightly woven together as possible, I did end up with a huge amount of material I didn’t use, but I needed it in order to really know the characters and really understand the story myself.
Q. What does the title, the address of the home Janusz chooses for his reunited family, represent to you symbolically? Why that particular address?
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 that 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?
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?
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.
Q. Love is a redemptive force in this story, but love is also fraught with secrets, unmet fantasies, and unquenchable need. Given their painful personal histories, do you think these characters would be better off with something more pragmatic than love?
Well, I think there are many acts undertaken in the novel in the name of love but that ultimately, love in this novel is about the need for forgiveness and the need for a sense of belonging. The freedom, in fact, to love and be loved in return. Perhaps that is a pragmatic approach?
Q. When it comes, the revelation about Silvana’s past is shocking, throwing everything into question for the reader. Were you concerned about how this moment in the book might affect the reader’s opinion of your protagonist or the reliability of the narration?
I was very concerned about this. In no way did I want to trick the reader or undermine her belief in the characters, but I also didn’t want to surprise the reader with something out of the blue. I hoped that the novel built to this moment so that although there is a sense of shock, there might also be a sudden, deeper understanding of everything that has gone before.
Another important question the novel raises is about parenthood—and whether an adoptive or long-separated parent can have the same kind of bond with his child as someone who has been there all along. Can someone like Janusz be a real father to Aurek?
Parenthood is fraught with questions of love and bonding and full of the difficulties of familial relationships. I believe that Janusz’s love for the semi-wild Aurek, even in the light of Silvana’s actions, shows how our human desire to nurture and love can survive and flourish in the most extreme situations. I think Janusz’s experience shows how difficult separation can be, but ultimately, I think, he is the right father for Aurek, because he is committed to his role and loves the child unconditionally.
Q. You have given your readers a rare thing—a happy but authentically satisfying ending to the story of the Novak family. Was this ending obvious to you from the beginning of the writing process? What sort of future do you imagine for these characters?
I knew I wanted the characters to find something good in their lives and that they had to find it within themselves, but really, the characters led me to the ending themselves.
And their future after the novel ends? I like to think that they make a successful life on their own terms in Britain. I’d like to think that Janusz finds satisfaction in his work (because he has a strong pride in his own work ethic) and that Silvana learns to trust the world again.
Aurek is another generation. He would have been a young man in the early 1960s and it would be interesting to see what he made of his life. I hope the optimism of that decade would carry him toward whatever goals he wanted to achieve. My feeling is that he fell in love with a local girl and surprised himself by having a large family—a lot of lively grandchildren who would delight and worry Janusz and Silvana in equal doses.