BY DAVID DUHR
Author: Rose Tremain
Chatto & Windus, 2007 (Great Britain)
Little, Brown and Company, 2008 (United States)
Best ebook deal: Unavailable
I didn’t lose sleep because of The Road Home. It never shrieked at me from the nightstand, begging to be read, nor did I ponder the story when I wasn’t reading it. And yet, I found myself picking the book up at unexpected times, reading a few pages here, a few pages there, until it finally snuck into my subconscious and set up shop, almost apologetically—until I read the last page, whereupon it faded once again into the back alleys of my mind, where it will stay.
Rose Tremain won the 2008 Orange Prize for Fiction with this, her 10th novel. The story concerns 43-year-old Lev, an Eastern European sawmill worker who loses his job because “they ran out of trees.” His wife has recently died of cancer, he has a daughter and a mother to support, and work is hard to find in his hometown of Auror, a small village in an unnamed, ex-communist nation. Lev decides to strike out for England, hoping to make enough money to support both himself and the family he will leave behind.
We learn Lev’s backstory during the long bus ride to the coast, and are given a glimpse of how his mind works when he puts the age of the woman seated next to him “at about thirty-nine.” This woman, Lydia, will play a sizeable role in the narrative, but not before Lev dismisses her as someone he is unlikely to ever see again once they reach London:
… there they would have to sit for fifty hours or more, side by side, with their separate aches and dreams, like a married couple. They would hear each other’s snores and sighs, smell the food and drink each had brought with them, note the degree to which each was fearful or unafraid, make short forays into conversation. And then later, when they finally arrived in London, they would probably separate with barely a word or a look, walk out into a rainy morning, each alone and beginning a new life.
Tremain uses Lev’s time in England to show us her perceptions of modern-day London, most of whose residents dismiss Lev as an “asylum seeker.” He washes dishes for an overbearing chef in a posh restaurant, dates a waitress who cares more about climbing the social ladder than she does about Lev, is robbed by teenaged hoodlums, and spends a good deal of his time wandering the streets, repulsed by all of the overweight, soda-guzzling, crisp-munching Londoners.
It’s Lev’s fellow emigrants who help him adjust to life in a foreign land: Lydia from the bus; Christy, an Irishman who rents Lev a room; an Arab shop owner who gives Lev his first job; and, in what is unquestionably the novel’s most bizarre scene, two drunken Chinese male migrant workers who give him an unasked-for erotic massage, complete with happy ending, just when he needs it the most.
Lev uses Rudi, an old friend in Auror, as a sounding board, and this is one part of the novel which disappoints. Described on the book jacket as Lev’s “hilarious friend,” Rudi is nothing but a mess of platitudes disguised as a sort of weary, “I lived through Communism” wisdom, and the character falls flat.
(Blame me for actually expecting hilarity when promised it by a book jacket. Never forget that they’re trying to sell books.)
As you would expect, Lev feels out of place in England. He’s yet another “man without a country.” It’s not a terribly unique storyline, but Tremain handles it deftly, and manages to sustain our interest because of Lev’s inherent likeability. We want him to do well, we root for him through the predictable plot, and we’re pleased when he finally makes it back to Auror—despite the bad news that spurs his return.
Knowing London is likely to enhance your enjoyment of this novel. Having never been there, I felt like Lev at times, wandering the unfamiliar streets of a global city. The writing, too, reads at times as if it’s stumbling along in a daze, unsure of which way to turn. Check out this line:
And he started to reassure himself that when Marina had been alive he, too, had had a proper kind of life—even if a poorer one than those lives going on around him in London—and he remembered how, on Marina’s thirtieth birthday, he had found at the Baryn market some scarlet shoes with three-inch heels and open toes, and Marina had put them on and dressed herself in a flouncy black skirt and a red shawl borrowed from Lora, and they had eaten roast goose and drunk beer and vodka and danced a tango on Rudi’s porch—Rudi and Lora, Marina and Lev—and felt crazy with happiness and desire.
For those of you keeping score, that’s 107 words, four em dashes, seven commas, and one blessed little savior of a period. Perhaps this line is supposed to reflect Lev’s sense of being adrift, but these kinds of passages only serve to bog down the narrative.
Most of Tremain’s writing, though, is quite pleasant, if forgettable:
Lev’s bus arrived and he climbed on and was glad of the weak warmth to be found inside and the lemonish light in the darkness. He wished someone could have warned him about the suddenness of change in the English seasons. He knew he’d become too accustomed to the fine weather he’d made no adjustments in his mind for a cold autumn. And now he could see the long tunnel of winter waiting ahead, the dark afternoons, that old middle-of-the-night sadness you could feel when you heard the wind tormenting the trees.
This is a readable novel. Tremain is a more-than-capable writer, and the story moves along at a good pace toward its satisfying conclusion. And since I read none of the other novels on the 2008 Orange Prize shortlist, I have no business voicing an opinion on whether or not The Road Home should’ve won.
But I’m going to anyway—this is not a Best of the Year-caliber book. I’m guessing that Tremain was given the award for her impressive body of work, rather than for this specific novel. And more power to her.
Further Reading: For more Rose Tremain, try Music and Silence and Restoration. If you’re curious to see who she beat out for the Orange Prize, the longlist included Jennifer Egan’s The Keep and Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul. Complete list can be found here.