What a great writer. I raced headily through “Restoration” and its sequel “Merivel” last year, and within a few pages of “The Road Home” this week I felt myself to be back in good hands and on familiar territory.
Rose Tremain consistently writes deeply satisfying novels, where you sink deep into that chair and just get lost in the world she is portraying. There is humour, compassion, real mastery with the storytelling and, above all, I think she creates wholly credible characters who leap off the page and who you feel you would recognise walking down the street towards you.
Just as Merivel was A Man of His Time, the hero of “The Road Home” is very much a man of ours. Although this novel was penned almost a decade ago, its relevance to today is heartbreakingly striking, as more and more people leave their homes in a quest for a better future. Lev hails from an undisclosed Eastern European village and as the tale begins we find him on a seemingly never-ending coach journey en route for London, hoping to make his fortune and create a rosier brave new world for his young daughter and recalcitrant mother. Jobs at the sawmill back home have dried up (“They ran out of trees,” he sighed) and the future there is bleak, with the prospect of worse changes to come.
Nothing about the current migration situation today is other than deeply complex and there is sadly no magic wand that can be waved to find tenable solutions; at the time of writing this book, Rose Tremain explored the dilemma from the viewpoint of a close-knit community wracked by the economic developments of the time and striving to make a better life for themselves. As compatriot Rudi comments before Lev’s departure for Europe: “‘Prayers are no f***g good,’ Rudi had said, when the last tree was sawn up and shipped away and all the machinery went quiet. ‘Now comes the reckoning, Lev. Only the resourceful will survive.’”
Great mate Rudi has sent our main man off with a wad of £20 notes that are meant to see him through for weeks to come, so Lev’s introduction to the harsh realities of living in London is well and truly a baptism of fire. Everything about this new world is alien to him; his English is rudimentary at best, and he has no clue about the social mores or the way to go about things at all. His courage is one born of desperation, and we share his sense of bewilderment by just imagining being in the same hopeless situation. Who hasn’t been foiled by the turnstile and fumbled for a coin at public toilets somewhere like Victoria Station, and just what do you do if you’ve only got a twenty pound note? How does one go about finding refuge and a job in such circumstances and in such an anonymous city?
Setting aside considerations of dealing with an influx of immigrants to a population with economic problems of its own, “The Road Home” offers a depiction of what it feels like to be on the other side, as it were. If Lev has left home like Dick Whittington sans chat but with his belongings virtually in a sack on a stick on his heavy shoulders, it is because it is indeed a matter of survival of the fittest: “He sighed and said: ‘I will do any work at all. My daughter Maya needs clothes, shoes, books, toys, everything. England is my hope’”.
Along the fictional way he is going to meet with plenty of tolerant souls who will do what they can to give him a chance, but he is also going to come across general indifference on the law and order front, not to mention an insufferable pair in the kitchens of an old people’s home who make you feel ashamed of some current mentalities in modern Britain:
“‘Bet ’e don’t ’ave no visa,’ said Jane. ‘’E’s illegal.’ / ‘That it?’ said Mrs Viggers. ‘Asylum-seeker, innit?’… / ‘Then you’re done for. You’re back on the first plane… To wherever you came from: Bela-whatsit, Kazak-wherever.’”
This is a deeply empathetic portrait of an extremely credible character and yes, have to add that Lev is also eminently fanciable… Loved the people he runs into and hangs out with; loved the scenes in the kitchens he ends up working at (quick aside to C : I know you enjoyed the restoration romps, and with all the culinary goings-on here I know you are really going to devour this novel, excuse the pun). Also could not have loved more the pages that describe the writing of a daily menu quite a long way into the story.
Don’t want to spoil anything, so would just urge you to read this book on its many different levels. Like its protagonist, it is not without the odd flaw – when Lev’s phone gets nicked by a couple of delinquents, for instance, he has to get a new one and is instantly rung on it, despite losing the Sim card, but really that’s not such a bone of contention, is it – and it does verge a little on the sentimental at times, which may irk the odd dispassionate reader, but it is a great flesh-and-blood read.
As well as not failing to stop us in our tracks to reflect on the political front, it surely cannot also fail to delight as a depiction of human nature at its humane, optimistic best.
Rating : 10/10
Winner of the (at the time) Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction 2008, now the Baileys’ Prize