When I am putting together a list for one of my book clubs, I always like to include an overlooked gem. This is usually a book that has not received a lot of publicity or media attention, but is still rich and engaging. One year, I was lucky to come across an ad for an author visit in a local, independent book store’s newsletter. I couldn’t have asked for anything better when searching for such an unheralded read! I listened to Amanda Hodgkinson read from and discuss her debut novel, 22 Britannia Road (2011).
There are a lot of WWII novels out there, but
this one brings something new to your discussion table.
Her story begins in pre-WWII Poland, when two young lovers, Janusz and Silvana, decide to get married. We don’t know much about them and we get the feeling they don’t know much about each other. But the newlyweds settle into a happy life. Then the Germans invade, and Janusz decides to enlist. But before he leaves, he fails to make any escape plans for his family, and Silvana has to make a life-altering decision by herself: where should she go in order to survive? While Janusz boards a train to the front lines, Silvana heads to the countryside to find safety. This part of the story is told in flashbacks as the reunited couple’s continuing story is told in postwar England.
Our book club discussion about this novel was a little heated at times. The characters of Janusz and Silvana tended to create polarizing emotions, since they were rather hard to like and relate to. Readers were left wondering what motivated this couple, and if they ever really knew them. Did Silvana and Janusz even know what love was? What about their son, Aurek, who never knew his father until he was brought to England, and at age seven considered his father “the enemy?”
Many of my group members also wanted to talk about the rich way Hodgkinson put the book together, with the shifting time lines moving forward and back. They liked the very powerful, almost lyrical phrases such as “rat-ruined thatch roof,” and “tunnels of white which turned the air blue and the trees black.” They were curious about the stilted growth of the characters and what motivated them. Was this an allegory for the war?
As you can see there is a lot here to get ahold of and talk about. This novel presented a very different image of what a life could be like—not knowing when or where danger would come or even where your next meal would be. In my opinion, the alternating story lines brought the couple to life and helped explain some of what they were missing inside. I know there are a lot of WWII novels out there, but this one brings something new to your discussion table.