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The Road Home by Rose Tremain

January 18, 2009 | No Comments

In December 2008, Rose Tremain won the Orange Broadband Prize for her 1oth novel, The Road Home, her sympathetic and complex portrait of a Russian immigrant’s experience in modern-day London. Tremain is an agile and unusual novelist, she is unafraid to tackle any subject matter in any century, and unafraid to give her characters a hefty mix of admirable traits and bone-chilling flaws. She has a clear eye for both language and humanity, she is neither showy with her words, nor sentimental with her plots. She consciously draws parallels between The Road Home and The Grapes of Wrath – a brave gambit, and a merited one. Lev leaves his 5 year-old daughter behind in Russia, in the care of his mother, following the death of his young wife and treks the long journey to “lucky” England, in the hope of making enough money to secure his family’s future. The saw mill where he worked, as did his father before him, has closed, having, literally, run out of trees. On the endless bus journey, he bonds with his neighbor over her lunch of boiled eggs, and time and again, he turns to plain, pragmatic Lydia, when his attempts to succeed in London falter. Tremain understands the paralysing isolation felt by the immigrant, surrounded by a language he barely understands and by a people who are willing to exploit his efforts but unwilling to empathise or to confer human respect. It is other immigrants, other outsiders, Ahmed the cafe owner, or Christy the Irish plumber, who offer him a solidarity and a helping hand. After all, “When you come to a land without song,” offers Christy, “things are bound to go tits-up sooner or later.” Yes, I’m afraid London does not fair well in this novel. The self-absorbed ambition and materialistic glut of the West pervades Lev’s story, and he is simultaneously appalled yet greedy to secure his share. 

I didn’t love this novel, there was not enough poetry in it for me, though it will return to me every time I peel a boiled egg, and I suspect part of the reason for Tremain’s win was the favorable timing of its subject matter – but it is a compelling read – and a timely reminder to those of us who believe we sympathize with the plight of immigrants but still roll our eyes when served in a London pub by an Eastern European who can’t pronounce steak-and-kidney pie.

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