on 22 July 2007
Rose Tremain can, it seems, do just about anything. Each one of her books is utterly different from the last, each creates a detailed and authentic world for her characters and their quests.
In The Road Home, Tremain tells the story of Lev, an Eastern European migrant worker who has left his village and travelled to England so that he can finance a better life for his mother and daugther. He takes with him his grief for his dead wife. There is an almost fairytale-like quality to Lev's chance encounters and where they lead him, although, that said, they also feel natural and possible; Tremain has always been good on the essential randomness of experience.
Lev's London is awash with money, celebrity and complacency - an ugly picture of the way we live now - but there is nothing polemical about the book. The world Tremain creates feels real, and she allows her characters to negotiate it, and make their compromises with it, in a way that is both convincing and very poignant. There is also a rich vein of humour that runs through the book, much of which comes from the stories about and conversations with Lev's friend Rudi, who has stayed back in the village.
The 1983 Granta list of best young British novelists famously includes: McEwan, Rushdie, Pat Barker, Amis, Graham Swift. Tremain was among this group but in my view remains a little underrated. Both Music & Silence and Restoration have found critical acclaim and broad readerships, but The Colour - a fine, fine book - did less well, and The Way I Found Her is a book far less well known than it should be. Almost alone amongst that stellar group of 1983, she hasn't yet put a foot wrong.
on 11 June 2007
I have always admired the award-winning author Rose Tremain, but her new novel THE ROAD HOME is the one that has given me the most pleasure. The tale of Lev, a middle aged Polish migrant worker, who comes to London after losing both his job and his wife, is both moving and funny. It's a marvellous take on modern Britain where foreign workers on scant wages toil away in the kitchens of posh restaurants in London and asparagus fields in Norfolk, whilst at the other end of the scale celebrity culture rules. Lev is a good man and a heroic hard worker. As he struggles to earn enough money to send home to his mother who looks after his little girl, he is helped by unexpected acts of kindness from a cast of diverse and entirely uncliched characters. Beautifully written, THE ROAD HOME is an uplifting read and highly recommended.
on 21 July 2008
I enjoyed this novel so much that when I was three quarters of the way through I went back to the beginning and started again! Tremain is an excellent writer. Her prose is full of colourful images and she has an eye for the quirky, the absurd, which makes for an entertaining read. In this tale the line between tragedy and comedy is finely walked. Lev is a beguiling hero - in many ways brave and admirable, but also flawed. His story is sad, sometimes brutal, but always handled with compassion. This novel could easily be read as a treatise on the plight of the immigrant worker - but it is more complex than that. Ultimately it is about the irrepressiblity of the human spirit and I loved it.
on 29 November 2011
The Road Home tells the story of Lev, a migrant worker from Eastern Europe who travels to Britain in the hope of working and earning enough money to support his mother and daughter, back in his home country. Lev is in his 40s and is grieving from the death of his wife from leukaemia but is willing to push his personal troubles aside and work hard.
This was my first Tremain novel and I liked the writing style and the way it flowed, I read this on holiday and this proved to be quite a quick read which entertained me. The parts when Lev arrives in the UK were great and it described well at first the confusion of entering a new culture before he then began to lead a rather charmed immigrant life.
But while Lev was slightly unpredictable in places, the characters surrounding him were nearly all stereotypes, like Christy the Irish heavy drinker or Sophie the Brit girl who is fun loving and easy to bed. Large parts of the plot did not ring true for me either but I am unable to give any big examples without spoiling the plot (ah Lev going from only knowing a few phases in English to reading Hamlet in a few months for one)
The more the novel went on the more far fetched it became until I was forced to suspend all belief in order to carry on to the even more unbelievable ending. I also had trouble believing the descriptions of (the unspecified)Eastern European country that Lev was from. I am just left with a image of everyone in this country drinking Vodka from dawn until dusk, children playing with goats during their lunch breaks and where £20 is a fortune.
on 21 July 2007
This is the first (but not the last) novel I've read by Rose Tremain. I bought it after reading excellent reviews in a newspaper supplement and wasn't disappointed. The main theme is hugely topical and provides a perceptive and thought-provoking insight into the lives of immigrant east-european workers currently arriving in the UK in search of work. All the characters in the novel are believable and it is easy to empathise with them, especially Lev the protagonist who is realistically drawn. Lev's story is probably not exceptional, but nontheless it is very interesting, humorous and moving: it moved me to tears and laughter in equal parts. I thoroughly enjoyed the journey which had me hooked from the opening page. Highly recommended - an easy but wonderful read.
on 2 September 2008
Fascinating to read so many rave reviews. I read this on a very long train journey and if I hadn't been stuck there would probably have abandoned it. Rose Tremain has a wonderful prose style and she organizes her plots really well with lots of development, but the novel didn't grip me at all. Characters were boring, situations obvious (mobile phone going off during concert, stereotypical rich/poor London, even more stereotypical run-down anonymous ex-eastern bloc country etc), the ending warm & cosy. Did nobody else find Lev deeply tedious? She is very good at doing her homework, so the top-class restaurant, police treatment of migrants, retirement home, and lots of other stuff were thoroughly credible. But I felt disappointed; maybe I'm just expecting too much.
In language serious, studied, courtly and old-fashioned RT takes us straight into the mind of our melancholy hero Lev - not Olev - cleverly written, carefully researched and up to the minute subject.
Through a haze of cigarettes, the smoking of each one has to be respectfully described, swigs of his darling vodka lisch, all vital to him despite the poverty of his circumstances. Christy and Rudi also sharing his crutches of nicotine and alcohol until they learn that they live more happily without them..
Auror, Glic, Yarbyl, Baryn, Jor are all unrecognised as actual place names so Lev comes from an unknown to us Eastern European country, of grey trade and grey money, arriving by bus and ferry to London. Journeying with the tidy figure of Lydia beside him.
Threading through the story the memory of Marina his lost loved wife, who was a strong mother, daughter in law, friend and colleague. Looking at London and Londoners through the eyes of a new comer with only his language structure to describe it. "Sucking on bottles like anxious babies"..
A clear and effective narrative - Rudi's voice is always in Lev's head, a powerful influence on him. Although later Lev overtakes Rudi and turns his life around for him. The homespun wisdom of Lev's family pushing through his thoughts. Homesickness constantly threatening to overwhelm him. Thoughts of Rudi and his Tschevi (almost a person) Lev's innocence, naivety and simplicity is appealing. Rudi's character is attractive and impressive. When he eventually becomes "The Face Of The Place' all seems right with the world.
Ina, the grim and difficult mother/grandmother/widow whose God is asleep never reacts quite as we'd hope and is like a belligerent donkey who will not be led. I felt she was an excellently drawn person, quite believable.
The themes of food and diet running through are interesting and touching. This chocolate `reminds me of sleep' says Ina grudgingly at the end in the restaurant at no. 43 Podorsky Street. Food horizons opening up with the experience of GKAshe, I remember the same when I worked in restaurant kitchens. Detailed descriptions of meals all so different, from hardboiled eggs, greasy grey goat meat kebabs onward all affected Lev and awoke his senses. Although I am amazed that Lev's taste buds actually worked after so much abuse from the tobacco and spirits. In fact Lev falls in love with food and cooking. Even in the uninspiring atmosphere of the nursing home kitchen. Food becomes his life even after the forty two years of not thinking about it. The kitchen suppers at GKAshe have a comforting reassuring feel, the crostini so delicious you can almost smell it.
As a poignant thoughtful touch RT includes characters from her other stories at least I recognised Ruby Constad from Letters to Sister Benedicta.
Truly felicitous meetings unfold through Lev's progress from his doomed home. His path is smoothed in a fairy tale way mostly by kind ladies and people who are pleased to repay the kindness of others to them. Lydia, Sulima at the first B+B, Ahmed the kebab man, hospitable Tom and Larissa (yoga aficionado). Christy Slane is far deeper and more of a character than he first appears and like all pantomime stories, his ends happily thankfully. Sophie, Sam the mad hatter, Vitas, the Ming's.
Throughout the tale we always understand what is being said to Lev but because of his limited English he only gets part of the conversations along the way especially with GKAshe (Gordon Ramsey) whose kitchen is run like an orchestra or an operating theatre. Christy talking away, his ex wife,snapping, Sophie the lover. It all gives the reader another view of our own language.
Through all of Lev's vast range of experiences you feel you are going through them al with him, they are so warmly and inclusively written. When he mucks things up in his only human way you cringe along with him and admire him for rising again to the next challenges.
So much of the story shows us how other people's voices, opinions and advice constantly ring in our heads - if we choose to let them. Also that the kindness of strangers really can turn your life around.
on 9 January 2008
I've never read any Rose Tremain books previously, but if generally she writes as well as she does in "The Road Home" I'd better start exploring her back catalogue. This is a rites of passage novel concerning Lev an eastern European migrant worker in Britain. It is somewhat depressing to note that anyone who was at all helpful to this near destitute man were themselves immigrants. It's the type of book you have to put down every second chapter or so, because you can see what is about to happen and you want to delay the tragic consequences as long as possible. I don't quite understand what makes a "great" book, but it seems churlish to offer just a "very good" in respect of The Road home, so providing you don't hold me too closely to account, I think I might just award it "great book" status. Very highly recommended!
on 19 August 2008
Rose Tremain's Orange Prize-winning `The Road Home` is a compassionate if somewhat conventional novel about a migrant worker from Eastern Europe who seeks a job in England to provide money for his family. Opening with a quote from The Grapes of Wrath, `The Road Home' is a contemporary take on the Steinbeck paradigm, depicting a new reality affecting thousands of people from poorer parts of Europe. As for many for whom an expanded EU offers hope to make a better life, Tremain's protagonist Lev heads for London. A 43 year old widower, Lev is forced to take his chances in the UK when work dries up in his town. A combination of the kindness of stangers and hard work give him the opportunity to save his family, who face destitution due to plans to build a dam that would flood his village.
It took me a while to warm to the protagonist, since he seemed more of a notional, idealised emigrant than a real person. Earnest, widowed, moral, and conveniently attractive, he seemed a bit too romanticised for my liking. But as the story develops, and we are afforded a little access to his memory, a more complex and tangible portait emerges: Lev's jealousy of a local beaurocrat, with whom he suspects his wife had an affair, has an aura of violence about it; and he has a couple of rages in the novel ("... that old anger of mine") that cross the line.
`Heart-warming' is not an adjective I'd normally use to describe the novels I like, but the sense of progress and optimism in `The Road Home' is infectious and moving without being excessivly sentimental. Tremain constructs her narrative with a deft economy indicative of her tenure teaching creative writing at the University of East Anglia. Sometmes, it feels a little too careful, the peaks and troughs of Lev's fortune mapped out a little too neatly. Also I found the novel's insistence of the humanity of the poor, and the general superficiality of the privileged, lacked subtlety. The London art circles Lev is forced to confront (during his romance with a social-climbing English colleague) are easy targets: predictably shallow and pretentious. That Lev can't relate to their wry remarks, or the crude metaphors apparent at the theatre and in the artworks he is shown, plays to the romanticised notion of the emigrant as earthy and authentic, untainted by cosmopolitan cynicism and wastefulness.
`The Road Home' engaged me most in the kitchen at GK Ashe, a restaurant that offers Lev his first proper job - washing dishes - but also a sense of direction and ultimately salvation. His initiation into the the catering hierachy is as compellingly told as his ignominous exit from it is palpably catastrophic. At first nicknamed `Nurse' to reflect his duty to keep things stringently clean, he describes "... the hot water, the grandeur of the steel surfaces, the fierceness of of the rinse-faucet ... the chefs hurled down mixing bowls, strainers, knives, stock pans, whisks and chopping boards". Compared to two other novels with depictions of kitchen life - Orwell's `Down and Out in Paris and London', springs to mind, as does one narrative thread in Kiran Desai's `The Inheritance of Loss` - the cleanliness and precision is almost surgical. Whereas in Desai's novel the kitchen is a hopeless dead-end for the immigrant underclass in New York, in `The Road Home' it briefly provides Lev a surrogate family with a brusque, patriachal boss. The meritocratic fair-play of the kitchen makes much more sense to Lev than the allegorical theatre and artworks his English girlfrien urges him to embrace.
A compelling narrative, then, but `The Road Home' lacks for me a tangible outsider's view of London. As a Londoner but now relocated to France, my home city becomes stranger and stranger each time I visist: increasingly transient, chaotic. I wanted to immerse myself in London as seen through the eyes of a stranger. Surely such a capital city would make a more profound impression (either positive or negative) on someone who had spent their entire life in rural Eastern Europe. Here Tremain's descriptive talents don't seem quite up to the task of conveying the awe and alienation you would expect. Contemporary Britain could be a fascinating literary canvas, but many authors seem to shirk from the task of capturing it's essence in the same way that American writers have long endeavoured to with their own nation. Blake Morrison did a fairly good job on `South of the River`, but I yearn to see something on the scale of Updike's Rabbit series, for example, written about the UK.
This book should have everything going for it but, for me, it failed to convince, quite shockingly, in a number of respects. It tells of Lev, a widower from eastern Europe (the Ukraine?), who travels to England as an economic migrant and is therefore in London legally, though he seems to know no one in the city, except for a woman who sat next to him on the coach journey through Europe, Lydia, who has a job as a translator waiting for her and friends to stay with. On his very first foray to find work he is given a job distributing leaflets by a friendly Muslim cafe owner.
He falls on his feet rather too often, soon getting a flat in the house of a twinkly Irish landlord, who gets drunk periodically (all the Irish are drunken sots, didn't you know?) and a job in a top class London restaurant progressing from washer-up to vegetable chef (as you do) in practically no time. The sous chef is a lovely, generous young woman, Sophie, who soon falls for this forty year-old grey haired penniless immigrant, though she has contacts in the art world and an up-and-coming artist proves to be a rival for her affections.
The plot proceeds and Lev soon has no problem with the English language, even given that he only knew about three phrases when he arrived. He's soon rabbiting away with all and sundry and is even reading Hamlet. Lev himself is a mercurial character, by turns heart-warmingly innocent, yet capable of forcing himself on Sophie in what I presume to be a rape. But it's the kind of rape that turns into something else. Perpetuating this kind of lie (she didn't want it but then it turned out she did) is something of which the writer, any writer, should be ashamed.
Events back home, where he has left his mother and his five year-old daughter, interfere with his progress until he gets a great idea. It will involve a matter of earning enough to save £10,000, but he conveniently receives a legacy from a lovely old lady in an old folks home who he cooked a nice dinner for once. No, I'm sorry - much as I've enjoyed many of Rose Tremain's books, this just won't do.