(Vintage, 2008); pbk: £7.99
The Road Home, by Rose Tremain, concerns a Russian man who travels to Britain to find work so he can send money back home to his mother and five year old daughter, Maya. Tremain successfully portrays a man down on his luck, hopeful and thoughtful yet also weak and tired. Sceptical as I was when first picked it up (Tremain is English), The Road Home manages to depict a believable journey of melancholy and hope, and also provide an insight into what British culture looks like from the outside looking in.
The journey begins as the protagonist sits on the coach, travelling to Britain, the land he considers lucky, a country that has never been subjected to occupation, which only had to fear loss in capitalism; he is going to this country to share in its luck. Lev is a forty-five year old man, a chain-smoker, a caring father and, a widower. Throughout his journey, the spirit of Rudi, his friend from back home, haunts his thoughts like an alter ego. Rudi is an extrovert, a daring and outrageous man who Lev believes would have been better suited to Britain. The comparisons he makes between himself and his friend provide another dimension to his miseries and speaks to a frustration in himself. It is something the reader can relate to and use to explain Lev’s difficulties in not being able to stand up for himself, for being a pushover, for having words on the tip of his tongue that he dares not speak. His hesitation is frustrating too: we know he is being used, that his status as an immigrant puts him below locals. We start seeing the ugly side of Britain, the oversized, celebrity obsessed, capitalist consumerist side; and if consumerism promises to solve problems, this may be only be true for those who have money. Lev is poverty stricken; his poor English leads to more difficulties with the public, an embarrassing reflection on our social attitudes. But as the book progresses, his life slowly starts to improve, his economic dilemmas ease and we see Lev’s life transform. He confidence increases and he starts to become more successful and also to search for bigger goals in his life.
While the novel is perhaps quite different from her other historical novels, Tremain’s aims are equally ambitious and she immerses herself into the life of an immigrant in modern day Britain. She does well to weave together social attitudes towards immigrants with the dreams of Lev, who is himself an engaging figure. Lev is almost philosophical in his daydreaming; often subtly questioning the social discourses he comes across in his journeys. Tremain’s novel is certainly interesting, managing to turn around the stigma attached to many immigrants who come to the UK looking for a better life.The Road Home is an inspiring story, showing that will and motivation can afford a person with little the means to break free of limitations of his background and aspire towards greater things. In this respect, the book was pleasant to read. Although not for everyone, Tremain’s sensibility and humanity are convincing.