22 Britannia Road is not developed in chronological order. The progression of present day events--for Silvana, Janusz and Aurek--are interrupted by flashbacks that tell us about the individual experiences in the war and a little bit about their lives before the war. Each flashback, as well as present day narration, is told from the point of view of one of the three main characters, either Silvana, Janusz or, sometimes, Aurek. A summary that circumvents the episodic flashbacks has merits and provides continuity since the episodic flashbacks are disruptive to some readers, as commented on by Lawrence De Maria writing for Washington Independent Review of Books:
Much is necessarily revealed in flashbacks. The episodic nature of the novel may be off-putting to some readers.
Silvana, Janusz and Aurek
Polish Silvania and Aurek are traveling by ship to England after she and her nearly feral son were found living wildly in a forest at the close of World War II. She was identified, and her Polish husband, Janusz, was notified that his wife and child were alive and would be transported to England to join him.
Silvana has a secret and a has made a promise that, at all cost, Aurek would have a father and a family. The heavy-handed foreshadowing of the eventual revelation of Silvana's secret reduces both the secretiveness and the surprise when the eventual disclosure of her secret comes and with it the answer to why she was living alone and wildly in a forest.
Janusz has taken advantage of the British offer to Polish military personnel who fought in the Polish division of the British military and has accepted citizenship and a fresh start at life in England. He has found the perfect English home to lease in the perfect English country town, where he, an engineer, has accepted a job offer, and where he will plant the perfect English garden. He intends for his family to be enveloped in all that is good of the simple, fresh new life they have been offered.
Janusz has a secret too but his secret is unfolded to us right away although it must be carefully kept from Silvana because, while escaping advancing German troops, Janusz fell deeply in love with the French woman, Helene, who helped to save and hide him.
After Silvana and Aurek have cleared immigration, and Silvana's hair has been shorn for health reasons, when Janusz (who is carefully suppressing his secret and the dream that he might have instead embraced Helene at the train station) meets Silvana and Aurek at the station, he is shocked beyond belief that they could have fared so badly during the war so that they seemed almost uncivilized and visibly traumatized. Why it was that they resorted to living in a forest is a question that quietly burns in his mind, yet one he will postpone asking because of the state in which he finds Silvana and Aurek.
A bearer of bad news. That's what she'd read in Janusz's face, when she told him she had never gone to see his parents after he'd left Warsaw. ... Will Janusz want to know what happened to her during the war? Will he want to know how she ended up living in a forest? And what about him? Will he have secrets too?
At 22 Britannia Road
Silvana knows no English and Aurek seems to communicate in growls and other inhuman noises, but Janusz takes them to their new home at 22 Britannia Road and with much pleasure shows them the home he has spent long hours improving and polishing up for their enjoyment. He shows Silvana and Aurek, who runs about like a bee, their long rectangular garden, with the overgrown weeds and lawns now tamed, and talks enthusiastically about the perfect English garden they will plant. Silvana is uncomprehending of the emphasis Janusz places on the idea of a perfect English garden, thinking all gardens must be the same sorts of things, but nods in a dull, overwhelmed and unresponsive way.
The first person Silvana and Janusz meet in their new neighborhood is their matronly neighbor, Doris, who becomes important to Silvana later on as she helps Silvana become a "proper English housewife," then helps her through other adjustments as problems turn up.
Aurek has trouble in school but makes one friend, Peter, the son of an umarried Italian man named Tony Bertoni who owns Bertoni Pet Emporium. As the boys, who both hate school, spend more time together and as Aurek begins to adjust to acting less like a wild boar rooting about in the wild forest, Tony and Silvana become closer themselves.
In the forest the trees spoke to him in green whispers, telling secrets that could crack the bones of those that did not belong. He walked among the and felt their words like falling leaves, soft and understanding. He does not like this England where he must wear his school cap straight, sit up, and recite the Lord's prayer from memory.
Eventually old secrets begin to come out, new secrets begin to form and reactions begin to reshape dreams into the form of reality. Janusz learns that Tony has declared his affection for Silvana. Silvana finds a stash of French language love letters hidden in a box of cleaning supplies on a shelf in the pantry. Secretly borrowing a French-English dictionary from Tony, she begins to translate the love letters into English, then, later, into Polish with the help of an English-Polish dictionary. She learns of Janusz's love for Helene.
Silvana reveals her secrets telling Janusz that the boy they call Aurek is not their son. Their son died shortly after Janusz left Warsaw, Poland, to go to war against the Germans. The one they now call Aurek was a stray child, a motherless casualty of war, of about the same age as their dead Aurek, whom Silvana took as her own and whom she raised in hiding in the forest with the promise that she would never desert him and that, if possible, he should have a home and a father. Silvana and Tony reveal their secret love. They run away together with the two boys to a cottage by the sea in a nearby town.
With Silvana and Aurek--the replacement Aurek--living away from home with Tony and Peter, Janusz delays returning home at the end of his work shift, then spends his time in repairing and improving anything that catches his eye in their perfect English home at 22 Britannia Road. Eventually, after the loneliness gnaws at his heart and dreams, gnawing them into dust, he forgives Silvana, embraces the second Aurek, promising him a home, then he and Silvana reconcile and reunite. Janusz plants two trees in his perfect English garden. The first tree is for his lost son, the first Aurek. The second one is for their new son, the second Aurek.
The thought of Tony makes [Janusz] want to push her away, accuse her all over again. But he pulls her closer to him. "Come back," he whispers. "Please come back." [...]
There is nothing between her and her husband now, not even a child to link them. She knows this, has told herself so, many times. But the sight of janusz sitting waiting in his car makes her heart soar, and she walks toward him. Janusz opens the car door ....
Silvana's War Experience
Silvana does not want to leave Warsaw even though Janusz instructed her to immediately leave their big-city home and go to his parents' country-side home. Eventually, she takes their toddler son, Aurek, a bright-eyed boy with golden curls, on a bus to Janusz's parents' home town. The bus has an accident. She follows a living river of old women, young women, children and old men as it flows down the road away from Warsaw and toward the country. Silvana and Aurek never make it to Janusz's parents'. Aurek, sick and running a fever, dies. Silvana never forgives herself, saying that because she left him for a moment, he died. She was hysterically distraught. Still part of the flood of Polish refugees fleeing the Germans, she found herself in an encampment with a group of other women, refugees too like herself.
One night in among the refugee group, there was a little boy, a toddler like her dead Aurek, who wandered from woman to woman crying and crying with his arms outstretched, seeking his missing mother. Silvana held him and he gripped her. Together they fled the group of women refugees and escaped to hide in the forest. Eventually, they learned to live in the forest becoming attuned to its natural rhythms of heat and cold, dark and light. Aurek, never really knowing any other kind of life, became as one with the sky, birds, wild boars, flowers, earth and insects.
Janusz's War Experience
Suffering defeat at the hand of the German's, Janusz and his friend Bruno find themselves in danger and at the mercy of French villagers and farmers who may or may not want to hide and help them. Ill and under threat of being found by the advancing Germans, Janusz and Bruno are in hiding with a French woman who would rather betray them than help them. Taking momentary mercy on them, however--first telling them that if she ever sees them again she will turn them in--she says that if they leave immediately, she will get them to a farm where Janusz can recover and they can hide out by living like farm laborers.
Safely journeying to Helene's farm, Helene nurses Janusz back to health, then gives him and Bruno safety and work. Eventually, Bruno makes a plan for them to join the British army, which has a division for stranded Polish soldiers. Ultimately, Bruno and Janusz make their way to the Normandy coast and ship out for England, the land of opportunity where citizenship, work and a home are offered to the displaced Polish who fought side-by-side with Britain in their Polish division.