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The road home by Rose Tremain was another challenge book for me. Not one of my usual picks but it has won prizes so got me intrigued.
The story is mainly about a man called Lev who is from Eastern Europe. You first meet Lev as he is on a bus to England seeking better fortune to enable a brighter life for his family back home after the death of his wife.
Lev sits next to a lady called Lydia who after numerous hours together on a bus, develop a brief and what was thought to be fleeting relationship. Even when she gives Lev her number in case he needs help, you don't expect it to go further.
Lev has arrived in England and it quickly becomes clear he is somewhat overcome by the hustle and bustle of London, with little money, no place to stay and no job it seems dismal. Lev is progressive in trying to acquire a job and accommodation, as he just has to remember his little girl Maya back home.
Lev initially homeless finds a job delivering leaflets but as pay is little he decides that he needs a little help and calls Lydia.
She sets him up with a flat share with an Irish divorcée who likes a bit too much to drink. They muddle through together and develop a beneficial relationship where by Lev assists Christy stay off the drink and Christy enlightens Lev to the English ways.
With a new place to stay Lev gets a new job at a restaurant kitchen and meets Sophie who he has a intimate relationship with but clearly it meant more to him than to her and it goes downhill. This is the only time when the author gives you another side to Lev, which is not so nice. Setting this aside Lev pushes on to pursue his goal of making money for his family back home, eventually hoping to go back. His goal changes after working in the restaurant and he not only wants to earn money but create a business to take back home.
Whether this happens and whether Lev makes it home you will have to read to find out!
The book itself is insightful to the immigrant worker and what it must feel like for them coming to this country without hardly anything in search of a better life. It also shows a degree of will power and stubbornness on the part of Lev to get himself to where he wants to be, especially as he has left his young child at home.
The narrative of going back to Lev's past and seeing how he coped with his dying wife is insightful to the story, along with the chats that he has every now and again with his friend Rudi from home. They keep you focused on what Lev's end game plan and his reasons for doing this.
It does have a tendency to be "to good to be true" aspect about some parts of the story, however I thing the author has done well in the earlier parts to show how little things can make or break people living on the edge of society and perhaps our intolerance to certain things.
It is a book I enjoyed and would recommend to others because it does make you thing about the story behind people lives.
Published by Vintage in 2007 and is available on Amazon and good book stores for around £3 - £7
Review may also be posted on ciao and dooyoo under the same username.
I was totally blown away by this book, it was amazing. It follows a character called Lev, who has lost his wife to illness and is left with his young daughter and her grandmother. They are struggling to make ends meet after Lev loses his job, so he comes across to London to make money to send back home for his daughter. Its a totally modern and harsh account of the struggles that Lev faces in this country, the way that it is different to his own country and is suprised how difficult it is to get along. He has to work long hours to earn money but once he has taken out his high living expenses he is disappointed to find he does not have much left for his daughter. So he takes matters into his own hands and with the help of a couple of friends made along the way, sets out to really make his money and his family proud. A fantastic book.
This book was a surprise as I really didn't enjoy reading one of Rose Tremain's other books, 'The Colour'. So it was with trepidation that I started this novel. It was good to see it bang up to date and quite topical in its subject matter. The novel centres around Lev, who has left his eastern European country to come to London in search of work. He finds it very difficult to get established due to language barriers and a sheer lack of knowledge about how to organise accommodation and work.
The downside of this novel for me was how badly he was accepted by most people. This wouldn't have surprised me for some places in the UK but not in London where surely there is such a rich mixture of cultures. It was interesting to see Lev's journey unfold for the reader, at the same time as it was unfolding for Lev. Joining in his highs and lows, experiencing my own country from a stranger's perspective. I don't know why his country was put down so much in the novel, even though we were taken there a lot through telephone calls I felt I would've liked to have experienced it more. I can't imagine that the people who were involved in Lev's life would do this and I feel this was a slight mistake on the author's behalf.
The characters were overall well-written, I could imagine most of them but I couldn't always imagine how Lev was feeling; especially in the early parts of the novel before he got himself sorted with a room to live in. The plot is very topical and bang up to date, which was (as mentioned) a refreshing change after reading a novel that I disliked so much. The downside of the novel was it's length and in some parts, lack of emotion. It became repetitive, the reader knew the struggles Lev was going through and some of them seemed to be agonisingly long, when they didn't need to be. I quite liked the ending, it brought a good close to the novel and although predictable from the early stages it still made me smile.
When he is made redundant from his town's saw mill, widower Lev leaves behind his young daughter with her grandmother and makes the long coach trip from Eastern Europe to London, hoping to find a job that will enable him to earn enough money to send home to make a better life for Maya. With the help of Lydia, a fellow passenger, he slowly starts to find his feet in London, renting a room from Christy, an Irishman with his own personal problems, and landing a job - though menial - in one of the city's most prestigious new restaurants. Things start going well for Lev until suddenly he is reminded just how different life is from the one he left behind.
'The Road Home' is a thought-provoking and engaging read that I found instantly compelling. It is not specified which country Lev comes from which turns out to be an important omission because this is only partly the story of an experience of immigration. While that forms an intrinsic part of the novel, it's also the story of Lev, his friends and his home town regardless of where exactly that might be. There is so much more to Lev than his experience as an immigrant.
However, the experience of (not just) economic migrants does form a central and fascinating pillar of 'The Road Home'. Rose Tremain handles this with great humanity; there are several incidents where Lev gets into trouble because of some linguistic or cultural misunderstanding and these incidents are thought-provoking reminders of the obstacles foreigners encounter when learning to live in a new culture. I was gladdened by the way she tackles this because I feared that it might be done in the same way that Marina Lewycka looks at cultural differences in her novel "Two Caravans" that also focused on the experience of migrant workers in the UK and which I found crudely slapstick in places.
Instead the book's humour comes mainly from the phone calls Lev makes to his friend Rudi back in Baryn and the stories Lev tells his new friends about Rudi and the almost clapped out 'Tschevi' that is Rudi's pride and joy. I loved Rudi's blind optimism and the almost always misguided he doles out to Lev about Britain even though he has barely set foot out of his own town.
The cast of characters are all beautifully crafted if a little predictable at times. Lev is a complex character who I often found surprising but never boring and certainly never incredible. Too often we think about immigrants as a group rather than a series of individuals and I think Rose Tremain does an exceptional job of reminding us that. It would have been easy to create a perfect Lev, a man who wanted to earn his money and send it home, keeping his head down and enduring the hostility that all immigrants experience from some quarters. However, I believe that the author actually stirs things up a bit by making Lev fallible; sometimes he does things that are really quite awful but it never turns the reader against him.
The story is entirely told from Lev's point of view but it doesn't make the other characters any less real and Tremain still manages to cleverly allow us to see things from the point of view of other characters whether that's through the phone calls between Lev and Rudi or the long chats that Lev has with his landlord Christy.
As well as being an account of an immigrant's experience 'The Road Home' is a novel that raises questions about our priorities and how we treat others in order to get what we want. It considers - albeit indirectly - the economic differences between different classes and cultures in what could be construed as a polemic against modern life. While his family scrimp at home Lev spends nearly two hundred Pounds on a suede jacket to wear to a theatre premiere, a jacket that eventually ends up in a dustbin; meanwhile immigrant workers earning barely the minimum wage are breaking their backs picking asparagus in the east of England while GK Ashe's (an obvious allusion to Gordon Ramsey with this character) chefs are earning upwards of £17 an hour to cook it.
I found the first two thirds of the story worked really well and relished every page even if I did find one or two minor flaws. One was that Lev didn't really engage much with the immigrant community like most people in his situation tend to but it's not a point worth quibbling too much over. The other was that Lev repeatedly tells people that back home people aren't interested in good food, something I really felt was incorrect. While eastern European food might be considered quite homely and plain in contrast with many other international cuisines I would argue that - at least in the parts of Eastern Europe I have visited - people are very proud of their culinary heritage and it is possible to eat some excellent food.
The final third of the book descended into an unfortunate spiral of predictability interspersed with a few incredible elements that disappointed me. It was as if the author suddenly lost confidence in her story-telling skills and just couldn't work out how to successfully conclude the story. Here it oozed sentimentality and became the sort of book I had feared it might have been all along.
I did enjoy 'The Road Home' even if the ending was a let down; for me the fact that I read it in what amounted to just a few hours means that I found it instantly engaging and worthwhile. I might even describe it as a 'Pilgrim's Progress' for the modern day, with Lev, representing Christian, encountering people and situations that test his faith in himself and others (though some might say I was over-dramatic in my comparison). If it were not for the occasional quite graphic sexual scenes I might even suggest it is a book which should be read by older schoolchildren in order to understand better the reasons foreigners come to the UK to seek work and a new start. It should certainly be given away with the Daily Mail!
'The Road Home' is a satisfying and enjoyable read first, a thought-provoking and intelligent look at the experience of economic migrants second.
My thanks to Magda who suggested I might enjoy this one
Lev is mourning his wife Marina, dead of leukaemia at the age of 36. After losing his job in the Baryn sawmill, which closed after all the trees had been used up, he sinks into depression while his elderly mother supports him and his 5 year old daughter Maya by making tin jewellery. The money is not enough though and Lev decides to go to Britain, to the lucky land of lucky people who didn't experience the damaging effects of too much history happening in their lifetime. "The Road Home" is a chronicle of Lev's stay in the UK, starting with his 50 hour journey on the coach.
We never learn which specific country he comes from (although it's a New-EU country, and almost certainly one that used to be a part of the Soviet Union) and this omission, at first disconcerting, gives his story a convincingly general quality: Lev becomes an New-EU everyman, standing for all the new migrants, the Latvians and Estonians, Poles and Slovaks, Czechs and Lithuanians that arrive at Victoria, Stanstead and Dover with more or less English, more or less money, more or less contacts, and a hope: for a job, a room, a job, a phone, a job, a chance.
The narrative is perfectly realised in the third-person free indirect style and we see everything from Lev's point of view only, unvaryingly convincing in the rendition of perceptions, emotions and moods. The language is classically transparent and reflects the internal states it relates to and thus we see other people and places through the lens of Lev's tiredness and depression, excitement and elation, anger and guilt. The writing is subtle, clean and luminous and the whole text doesn't have a single false sentence, a single false tone. Actually, there is one: an implicit mention of a Tube journey on Christmas day, when the Underground (and most public transport) shuts altogether, but this slight factual inaccuracy can easily be forgiven and immediately forgotten.
Lev's experience is utterly convincing. I have personally only shared parts of it, but the instances in which I can make the comparison, Tremain's account rings consistently true and meaningful (which are not always the same). From the way that German motorway service stations look and feel when the coach stops in them at night, to the dazed, alienated and lonely weariness on the day of arrival, to the shock at the sight of all the fat people, to the mobile phone being the first purchase, to the realisation that those that are left at home don't know one - one's new self - anymore after few months of being away.
The description of Lev's life in Britain has economy that doesn't affect its vividly tangible, sensual accuracy and the occasional subtle and not so subtle observations of Britishness and Londonness in particular. The smells, tastes, colours and the recollections they invoke; from delivering leaflets for a kebab shop and sleeping in a doorway to becoming a lodger with a divorced, drunken Irish plumber; from a washer upper in a posh restaurant to a chef in an old people's home; from picking asparagus in the muddy fields for a minimum wage to buying a £170 jacket for a play premiere; from the sexlessness of mourning to an exhilaration of a passionate affair.
Lev's stay in Britain is punctuated with numerous reminiscences of the life in the home country. He doesn't maintain a relationship with the community of incomers (that is perhaps the one thing that makes Lev a bit less of an iconic migrant) apart from one woman whom he met on the bus but he keeps in touch with his family and in particular, his exuberant friend Rudi, who runs a taxi service in their home village of Auror using an ancient Chevy ("Tchevi"). The vignettes of that old life and that old country provide a counterpoint to Lev's life in London and his mourning and eventually letting go of the mourning for his wife transcends the individual pain becomes symbolic of letting go of the past in general. Eventually, a threat of a catastrophe at home provides a pivot, a focus and a vision of future for Lev.
"The Road Home" would be a decent novel if it was just a reflection of the modern immigrant experience, but it's much more than that. Lev is, indeed a kind of Everyman, but he's also his own person, not just a sketch of an Eastern European. He's got his own history as well as the History that made his country and his people and, crucially to a lovable as opposed to just admirable novel, he's a likeable person in his own right, a good man essentially, compassionate and grown up, although not immune to an occasional outburst of anger, passion and despair that makes him - makes all of us - mad and bad and lost and stupid.
There is so much in "The Road Home" I won't even attempt to list it all. It's a wonderful, rich novel, captivating and difficult to put down despite not having what one might call a particularly riveting plot; grown up but not cynical, encompassing grief and love, work and history, examining what makes us fall down and what makes us get up again, with little quirks of humour and improbability appearing every so often to remind us that it is, after all, a tale, but never losing viability . Optimistic but not trite and beautifully written, The Road Home is humanistic writing at its best, and comes highly recommended.
Chatto and Windus (7 Jun 2007); 320 Pages
Normal paperback out in Jul 2008, though there is an airport edition.