The Road Home by Rose Tremain

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The Road Home by Rose Tremain

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Buy The Road Home by Rose Tremain at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A tale of a New-EU labour migration, a dilapidated Chevy and Communist food; it's a wonderful, rich novel, captivating and difficult to put down; grown up but not cynical, encompassing grief and love, work and history; examining what makes us fall down and what makes us get up again; with little quirks of humour and improbability appearing every so often too but never losing viability . Optimistic but not trite and beautifully written, The Road Home is humanistic writing at its best, and comes highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: June 2008
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099478461

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Lev is mourning for his wife Marina, dead of leukaemia at the age of 36. After losing his job in the Baryn sawmill, which closed after all the trees had been used up, he sinks into depression while his elderly mother supports him and his 5 year old daughter Maya making tin jewellery. The money is not enough though and Lev decides to go to Britain, to the lucky land of lucky people who didn't experience the damaging effects of too much history happening in their lifetime. The Road Home is a chronicle of Lev's stay in the UK, starting with his 50 hour journey on the coach.

We never learn which specific country he comes from (although it's a New-EU country, and almost certainly one that used to be a part of the Soviet Union) and this omission, at first disconcerting, gives his story a convincingly general quality: Lev becomes an New-EU everyman, standing for all the new migrants, the Latvians and Estonians, Poles and Slovaks, Czechs and Lithuanians that arrive at Victoria, Stanstead and Dover with more or less English, more or less money, more or less contacts, and a hope: for a job, a room, a job, a phone, a job, a chance.

The narrative is perfectly realised in the third-person free indirect style and we see everything from Lev's point of view only, unvaryingly convincing in the rendition of perceptions, emotions and moods. The language is classically transparent and reflects the internal states it relates to and thus we see other people and places through the lens of Lev's tiredness and depression, excitement and elation, anger and guilt. The writing is subtle, clean and luminous and the whole text doesn't have a single false sentence, a single false tone. Actually, there is one: an implicit mention of a Tube journey on Christmas day, when the Underground (and most public transport) shuts altogether, but this slight factual inaccuracy can easily be forgiven and immediately forgotten.

Lev's experience is utterly convincing. I have only shared parts of it, but the instances in which I can make the comparison, Tremain's account consistently rings true and meaningful (which is not always the same): from the way that German motorway service stations look and feel when the coach stops in them at night, to the feeling dazed, alienated and lonely weariness on the day of arrival, to the shock at the sight of all the fat people, to the mobile phone being the first purchase, to the realisation that those that are left at home don't know one - one's new self - anymore after few months of being away.

The description of Lev's life in London and Britain has economy that doesn't affect its vividly tangible, sensual accuracy and the occasional subtle and not so subtle observations of Britishness and Londonness in particular. The smells, tastes, colours and the motions and recollections they invoke from delivering leaflets for a kebab shop and sleeping in a doorway to becoming a lodger with a divorced, drunken Irish plumber, from a washer upper in a posh restaurant to a chef in an old people's home from picking asparagus in the muddy fields for a minimum wage to buying a jacket for £170 for a play premiere, from the sexlessness of mourning to an exhilaration of a passionate affair.

Lev's stay in Britain is punctuated with numerous reminiscences of the life in the home country. He doesn't maintain a relationship with the community of incomers (that is perhaps the one thing that makes Lev less of an iconic migrant) apart from one woman whom he met on the bus but he keeps in touch with his family and in particular, his exuberant friend Rudi, who runs a taxi service in their home village of Auror using an ancient Chevy ("Tchevi"). The vignettes of that old life and that old country provide a counterpoint to Lev's life in London and his mourning and eventually letting go of the mourning for his wife transcends the individual pain becomes symbolic of letting go of the past in general. Eventually, a threat of a catastrophe at home provides a pivot, a focus and a vision of future for Lev.

The Road Home would be a decent novel if it was just a reflection of the modern immigrant experience, but it's much more than that. Lev is, indeed a kind of Everyman, but he's also his own person, not just a sketch of an Eastern European, he's got his own history as well as the History that made his country and his people and, crucially to a lovable as opposed to just admirable novel, he's a likeable person in his own right, a good man essentially, compassionate and grown up, although not immune to an occasional outburst of anger, passion and despair that makes him - makes us - mad and bad and lost and stupid.

There is so much in The Road Home I won't even attempt to list it all. It's a wonderful, rich novel, captivating and difficult to put down despite not having what one might call a particularly riveting plot; grown up but not cynical, encompassing grief and love, work and history, examining what makes us fall down and what makes us get up again, with little quirks of humour and improbability appearing every so often to remind us that it is, after all, a tale, but never losing viability . Optimistic but not trite and beautifully written, The Road Home is humanistic writing at its best, and comes highly recommended.

Thanks to the good people at Chatto and Windus for sending this wonderful book!

Brick Lane tells a rather different tale of immigration experience but shares the motif of personal growth, while A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian takes a comedy approach to a family story of Eastern Europeans who escaped to Britain from the cruel hand of history.

Buy The Road Home by Rose Tremain at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Road Home by Rose Tremain at Amazon.co.uk


Buy The Road Home by Rose Tremain at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Road Home by Rose Tremain at Amazon.com.

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Helena Hawke said:

Your reviewer got it absolutely right. I have just finished reading the book and loved it too absolutely.

Helena