World War II had a massive effect on lives across the world; Silvana and Janusz, living in war zones, have been affected more than most. Separated at the very beginning of the war as a young married couple with a small son, Janusz immediately joins the army while Silvana is left in Warsaw with their son Aurek. Soon forced to flee the city, Silvana and Aurek hide in the woods, while Janusz eventually finds himself in England as a veteran. Six years after their separation, they’re reunited and start family life in a small house in Ipswich, but both have changed, and both have damaging secrets they’re determined to keep.
22 Britannia Road has received a great deal of acclaim on its release, so I was expecting quite a lot from this novel. World War II stories are everywhere these days, so it does take something special or a different perspective to help a book stand out from the crowd. With its post-war story told simultaneously with the immediate history leading up to the war and afterwards, along with its Polish characters, the book easily accomplishes that much, providing a new family perspective on the hardships endured during the war.
Silvana and Janusz’s reunion is uneasy; they barely remember what one another look like. Everything in their lives has changed. For Aurek, things are even more difficult and confusing, as he simply doesn’t remember his father and just wants to go live with his mother in the woods again. He has no concept of society, much less that required by the strict British school system and, partly, his father, who wants a son to be proud of.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book was actually Aurek’s reaction to other children, school, his father, and so on; it demonstrates the adaptability of children as much as it shows how much adults struggle to accept the same tasks. Oddly, in this way it reminded me of Room by Emma Donoghue, even though the subject matters diverge wildly.
And then, of course, there are the secrets, which have the potential to destroy the family’s newly forged life. Complicating things are people who thrust themselves into the Nowaks’ newly forged lives, like Aurek’s first friend Peter and his elegant father. Silvana is a character that is difficult to understand, with her complicated past, while I think Janusz longs for the life that will be familiar to most readers; a promotion, a son to be proud of, a wife who loves him, a shiny new car. The opening scenes of the book, when he paints his house worrying what his stranger wife and child will appreciate, while reminiscing about the woman he’s fallen in love with in France, were actually some of the most poignant for me in the entire book.
While, for me, 22 Britannia Road wasn’t earth shattering, it was a book that certainly shed another light on life during and after World War II, particularly for immigrants. And it’s a worthy look into the minds of both adults and children who have to deal with the nearly unimaginable happening thanks to the horrors of war. Recommended.
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