Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 365 pages; 2008.
Rose Tremain is one of those British authors who has been on the periphery of my reading existence for about 10 years. She’s been hard at work crafting novels — 11 at last count — and the odd short story collection, but I have only ever read Music and Silence, which won best novel in the 1999 Whitbread Awards. In fact, I adored that book so much, it may partially explain why I’ve shied away from reading anything else by Tremain: I’ve been scared that nothing else could live up to the beauty of my first experience reading her work.
I have had her 1992 novel Sacred Country in my reading queue for a year or so, but then she won this year’s Orange Prize with The Road Home and I wondered whether it was time to give her another shot. A half-price promotion at Waterstone’s was the final push I needed, and so, that was how I found myself last weekend opening this book and falling in love with it.
The story is essentially about an immigrant from an unspecified Eastern European country (I imagine it is Poland and wondered why Tremain had refused to just come out and say this), who arrives in London determined to make enough money to support his elderly mother and young daughter back home.
Lev is in his early 40s and still grieving over the death of his wife, 36-year-old Marina, from leukemia, so there’s a sense of melancholia about him. But he is also prepared to work hard and knows to get anywhere in life he must put aside his personal troubles and just get on with it.
Naively believing that it is possible to survive in London for £20 a week, he initially struggles to get settled, sleeping rough and making a measly fiver here and there by delivering leaflets for a kebab shop. But his luck turns when he scores a job washing dishes at a restaurant run by a famous chef (the fictional GK Ashe who has a touch of the Gordon Ramsay’s about him).
With a little help from Lydia, a fellow compatriot whom he befriended on the long bus journey to London, he finds himself a room to rent in a house owned by the genial Christy Slane, a recently separated Irish plumber. Together Lev and Christy strike up a wonderful friendship, based partly on shared grief and the fact they both have young daughters of around the same age.
When Lev finds himself falling in love with Sophie, a colleague, it seems as if his new English life is finally complete, but it’s really just the beginning of a complex, often bumpy, occasionally funny and constantly challenging journey…
Initially, I was gripped by this very human story. Lev is a remarkably likable and sympathetic character. I loved reading the descriptions of London through an immigrant’s eyes, having been one of those myself a decade ago. But while Tremain makes his struggles quite tough, they don’t always ring true. That Lev would find himself such a compassionate, helpful and friendly landlord, for a start, seemed unlikely. That he would land such a great job with so little English also seemed problematic. And his lack of friendship with other immigrants from his country — aside from the slightly highly-strung Lydia — seemed unrealistic. If you have ever been an immigrant you will know that you seek out others from your country, often without realising it, and congregate together, if only because the sound of a familiar accent (or language) is a comfort.
I had other problems with this book the further I got into it. There are inconsistencies in Lev’s character (that he could be so violent towards a female in one particular disturbing scene and then be unable to fight off two 12-year-old muggers in another, for example) and there’s a tendency to resort to immigrant stereotypes (the drunk Irishman, the fat curry-cooking Indian, the aloof and mysterious Chinaman). While it is clear that for much of the story Lev is living on the poverty-line, or surviving just beneath it, he still owns a mobile phone and thinks nothing of phoning his friend Rudi, back home: phone debt never seems to enter the equation.
But the thing that annoyed me most was the story’s slide, somewhere after the half-way point, into a kind of rose-coloured upbeat fairy tale that had me guessing the ending 100 pages before it arrived. It was like Maeve Binchy suddenly took over the narrative and injected a bit of heart-warming sentimentality. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it effectively ruined what had been an extraordinarily realistic tale up to that point. Suddenly it changed tack and became a vastly different book to the one it had promised to be.
Perhaps I am being overly critical. Perhaps Tremain wanted to show that it is entirely possible to achieve your dreams if you get all the horrible stuff — like struggling to survive on a minimum wage — out of the way first. But the promise of the first 180 or so pages did not play out and by the time I reached the final page I was more disappointed than satisfied.
Still, despite these flaws, I enjoyed The Road Home and found myself underlining sentences that struck me with their beauty, such as: “Planes kept passing overhead, embroidering the sky with garlands of vapour.” And this: “On the policeman’s hip, his radio made sudden, violent sounds, like the coughing of a dying man.”