I could not have predicted that my book group would have been reading Rose Tremain this month or that this review is of a book written by the same author as that on my inaugural post two years ago today! Serendipity? Coincidence? Symmetry? Whatever it is, it certainly was not planned.
Rose Tremain’s 2008 Orange-winning “The Road Home” was a novel I approached without much enthusiasm – the subject of immigration not one to raise my hopes and my expectations were of a pessimistic tale of unrelenting misery. (That is probably a lingering aftertaste of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”.) Well, after 30 minutes of discussion involving much laughter, I had to ask the group whether they’d considered “The Road Home” a comic novel!
It’s not but the woeful tale of the dilapidated Chevy, the ultimate success symbol in Eastern Europe, and the many ingenious uses of vodka and other unexpected liquids in keeping it on the road are very entertaining. As are Rose Tremain’s potshots at London’s luvey-duvey arts scene. Employing her immigrant, Lev, in a restaurant allows her to explore the age of the celebrity chef and the other side of the kitchen doors. Food is an important motif running through the novel – food as a symbol of wellbeing or otherwise, a symbol of belonging or alienation, of love or complete indifference. You can enjoy Greek, Indian, Morroccan and haute cuisine in its pages. But where I ask would you find a menu like this ….
Wickedly lovely free-range chicken breasts stuffed with mushrooms, shallots and herbs, served with a totally brilliant jus
Watermelon sorbet with no black seeds or rubbish in it
There are many strands to Tremain’s novel and she has blended them all seamlessly. This is due mainly to the compassionate way in which she depicts her main character, Lev – an economic but legal – as he is at pains to point out – migrant from an unnamed Eastern Europe country. He is not without flaws – in fact, there is a huge rafter in his eye when it comes to his relationships with women – but this does not alienate the reader. Recently widowed, he comes to London seeking to make money to send back to his impoverishered mother and his young daughter. Now it could go terribly badly – and in places it does – but fortune is smiling on Lev and, despite shooting himself in the foot more than once, there is a happy ending.
While this is very satisfying, Lev strikes lucky far too often. Lydia, the woman he meets on his journey into England, should be beatified. Christy, his landlord, is too tolerant. The job at the old folk’s home lands in his lap too coincidentally.
But these are trifling concerns in the context of the overall subtlety of the novel. In refusing to stereotype her immigrant, Tremain humanises him. Lev would drown in his grief without the strength imparted to him through his friendships. Without the right breaks, he wouldn’t be able to carve out a future for himself and his family. In a time economic instability, when distrust of immigrant workers is growing, Tremain’s novel can be read as a call for compassionate understanding. It’s of no benefit to anyone to keep willing workers on the poverty line.