The Road Home by Rose Tremain
The quote from that great novel of economic migration, The Grapes of Wrath at the beginning of Rose Tremain’s The Road Home, can leave us in little doubt as to her intensions with this sympathetic, timely story of Lev, an Eastern European and who travels to London. A middle-aged widower with a young daughter and elderly mother to support, Lev wants only to improve his lot; decent pay for a decent day’s work. He leaves his Russian village when the sawmill closes. (They ran out of trees,’ he explains, a poignant reduction of an insoluble problem).
On the interminable bus journey, bound for London, Lev practices his English: ‘Excuse me for troubling you.’ Do you have anything you could give me?’ ‘I’am legal. ‘Lev home country has just entered the EU and now he, like so many others, is heading west. His wife, Marina, has died of leukemia, his five-year-old daughter, Maya, is living with her grandmother and 42-year-old Lev – a farmer lumberyard worker, now one of Eastern Europe’s long-term unemployed – is traveling to London to find work.
Grey with exhaustion, Lev arrives in a dustry, midsummer city. Hope and envy jostle within him. As he told Lydia, his companion on the journey: ‘I’m going to their country now and I’m going to make them share it with me: their infernal luck. ‘Things, however, do not start well: almost all his savings are used up on his first night in the city, spent in an Earl’s Court B & B. on his upper after only 24 hours, he gate a job delivering leaflets for a kebab shop, for which he’s paid £2 a leaflet. He sleeps on the street. Desperate,lonely and grieving, he slips into poignant, wishful dreaminess.
Bit by bit, Lev gets himself on his feet and so begins a peripatetic, somes comic, often painful, journey through London, which it really feels to be a foreigner and the rage that being dependent on other can in duce. Lev is rescued from the streets by Lydia, who is now staying in the comparative paradise of Muswell Hill with Tom, an English psychotherapist, and Tom’s girlfriend, Larissa a yoga teacher from Lev and Lydia’s country. Tremain handless this culture clash with adroitness and humor: sitting on Tom’s lavatory, Lev relieves himself “as quietly as he could. The idea the he was taking a sh-t in the flat of an English psychotherapist made him feel very mildly afraid’.
Through Lev’s eyes, we see London as the newcomer views it and it is not an attractive sight: alternately moneyed and poverty-stricken its inhabitations obsessed by status and success. As Lev’s Irish landlord Christy says, with some prescience: ‘Life’s didn’t used to be like this, but now they are. If you can’t get your ball in the back of the net, you’re no one. Which is pretty much how Lev, working as a kitchen porter, is made to feel. At Lydia’s invitation, he goes to a concert at the Festival Hall, but is force to flee when his new mobile phone goes off in the expectant silence just as the conductor, for whom Lydia is working, takes the podium. On another occasion, his girlfriend takes him to the opening night of a friend’s feted new play, only to shame Lev for leaving the price tag on his new suede jacket.
As Lev fearfully and tentatively navigates this strange new city still mourning his wife, who died at only 36, he get know other Londoners. Ahmed, is a Muslim kebab-shop owner struggling to keep his business afloat in the post-9/11 world. Christy is a divorced Irish plumber who resents his upwardly mobile ex-wife and pines for his daughter; and Sophie is a young chef with a lizard tattoo who flirts with the restaurant’s celebrity guests but fusses over elderly people on Sundays at a retirement home called Ferndale Heights. Rudy, one of the Ferndale residents, is a rich old woman whose grown children neglect her. When Lev accompanies Sophie on her visits, Rudy confides her “guilt at how useless my life has been” and share memories of the childhood in India, particularly a school pageant for the British viceroy, when she held half of the letter “O” in a welcome sign. “I sometimes think,” she confides, “that’s all your life has amounted to, Ruby Constant, being half of something.”
Lev meets other economic migrants: a Russian woman on her own path to self-reinvention, who looks “determinedly straight ahead, like a gymnast trying to balance on a beam”; a teenage Russian kitchen worker; and two Chinese field laborers, Jimmy and Sonny, who laugh as they harvest asparagus, offering living proof that you can create your own happiness, even in far-from- happy circumstances. Tremain understands there’s heroism in the everyday act of survival, and she gradually brings Lev to the point where he can see this for himself.
After sleeping under tree and behind bushes to conserve his meager store of £20 note, Lev moves into an apartment in a “street of choky little houses. Called Belisha Road,” with the lonely Irishman, Christy. He takes a bunk bed in the room Christy’s young daughter had previously Slane, to have been given a child’s room. He wasn’t too embarrassed or proud to lay his head on a pillowcase. “They both longed,” Tremain writes, “to return to a time before the people they loved most were lost.”
After Lev finds a menial job in the chic restaurant where Sophie works, he slowly moves up the chain to vegetable preparer, taking baby steps toward a career as a chef. “I should feel grateful that sawmill closed,” he tells himself. Other – wise he might have ended up like his father, “enslaved to a lumberyard until I died and to the same lunch each day, and to the snow falling and drifting, year on year, falling and drifting in the same remote and backward places”.
Curious baffled, angry honorable, rash and passionate, Lev is a tremendous creation, and to identification, although he is a 40-plus widower and father , with burdens of memory and guilt at his back, Tremain, through her Voltaire’s candied; strange, for Lev is no ingénue, nor is the interested in the strangeness of the British to an outsider.
The novel, too also skewers the character-twisting distortion of celebrity culture; the infantile greed, materialism and success-worship of so much of contemporary life. Sophie, the sassy, sexy and generous colleague in the modish kitchen of “GK Ashe” who becomes Lev’s lovers, forsakes him in the end for an up-and-coming Brit-art git, “They didn’t used to be like this, but now they are,” says Lev’s Stewart, tea-brewing Irish landlord Chrisy, about these result-fixated modern “Brits”. “If you can’t get your ball in the back of the net, you’re no one.”
The Road Home on occasion switches from sad clique to Swiftian satire. The follies of conceptual art and avant-garde drama both draw raking fire. At the Royal Court, Lev storms righteously out of the press night of a fashionable shock-fest laden with viciously-parodied scenes of cruelty and abuse: “it’s probably my age, but I just feel weary with’ “he says.
On reading a novel by Rose Tremain, one suspect that what is torture for so many writers comes naturally to her. She has written about a dozen novels, set in different eras and places. Tremain writes as effortlessly and rhythmically as she breathes, tackling the serious misery of a hidden homesickness with a light and humane touch but with a firm grasp of the day-to-day realize and a rare ability to enter into the complex emotional world of the stranger. She’s on Lev’s side. English has made him a chef, but when is gratitude ever enough to overcome the longing to go back to one’s own country? Tremain writes so beautifully about Lev’s passage from near-destitution to success that it seems perverse to complain that she hasn’t made her book uglier. If The Road Home seems a slightly idealized version of a migrant worker’s journey (half through, Lev takes to reading Hamlet), it is a version filled with emotional richness, complex sensibility and a passionate insistence on the humanity of the poor, the unattractive, the flawed and the dispossessed.