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The Road Home
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on 7 April 2009
The book is hilarious. I have recommended it to all my school friends - those who didn't skip English lessons that is.
Tremain used every stereotype about Eastern Europe that she could think of (we call it Mid Europe by the way), tied them together and apparently feeling a little bit guilty about what she had done - threw in a few obese English celebrities and an Irish drunkard (of course) brought up in a dysfunctional family (where else?) for good measure. How embarrassing. I have no doubt that Tremain had good intentions, but she didn't make a good use of them. Apart from the fact that she clearly doesn't know much about her subject (she could at least have done some research in the internet) and the book is full of stupid mistakes, it's also boring, unrealistic, and has little sense of humor.
I understand what she was trying to do in not defining Lev's country. I like her carefully made up names, desperately international. But she tried to avoid being specific in such a clumsy way that the result is pathetic and confusing. Surely there is only one country in the A8 from which you have to travel through Austria to get to Britain???
Lev (who is 42 years old) sends kisses home XXXX - he is a quick learner indeed to catch immediately not only spoken English, but also English symbols- and money (in an envelope, apparently there are no banks there) to his mother living surrounded by goats in a village where electricity arrived only recently, causing cancer in the villages! Or perhaps it's the lack of red meat and proper food. Fish and chip shops probably haven't been introduced yet in the village. That's why the villages are not too fat, but rather slim; they like eating dumplings and wash them down with vodka from morning to evening. Their women don't have nice clothes and put papers on their head when it rains (I suppose they can't afford umbrellas). Surprisingly they do have school - and (even bigger surprise) they start education at the age of 5, at the age of 16 they can go to the university (Vitas' plan). It doesn't sound like an Eastern-European education system to me. But it's strangely similar to the British one. Moreover they have an hour lunch break like British children, during which they eat their pickles and play with goats. There are no modern cash registers, but there are skeletons of ex-communists with Kalashnikov pistols (obviously!). There are lots of items from Russia, but nobody reads "Hamlet". I suppose it's banned... Like Christmas was until not long ago!!!!!
Lev is going to introduce lovely British food (!) to his country, where "they have eaten communist food for 60 years," and "all anybody's eaten in the last century is goat meat and pickles (occasionally wild boar). Fortunately you can buy staples there now, but their people don't care about good food, because they haven't had a chance to try any. Does Tremain know what the world's opinion is on the British food?
And when you think that it can't get any better you find the best joke of all: "art needs to catch up in his country" and everybody (even teenagers) call each other: "comrade"!!! Doesn't she know that communism was practically over 30 years ago? Lev is still 42.
What a comedy! But I'm not surprised Tremain got away with it and was published (In my country you would be sent to Siberia for writing such rubbish). This and the book itself confirm the stereotype of British ignorance.
I could write more, but I need to go now and have some vodka, I haven't had any all day.
I'm considering writing a book though - before I visited Britain I wanted to write about a lovely girl spending her lunch breaks playing among the sheep (because you do have a lot of sheep in the country, I knew that much), but now I think that it would be better to write about a teenage mother, who spends her time eating hamburgers, bullying foreigners and getting pissed in pubs every night.
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on 8 February 2010
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.
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on 30 June 2009
Rum Runners and cutthroats abound in this tale of romance on the High Seas.

I did find the novel to be a trifle lacking in substance and many of the characters, particularily the main protagonist, Ralph, were rather sketchily drawn. However, that alone shouldn't put you off reading this ripping yarn. Rose Tremain is famed for her romantic novels, but this one is a little more substantial, and the subtext of colonial greed and cruelty lifts the book above the mundane.

If you ignore the character descriptions and concentrate on the fast moving plot, you wont be disappointed. I am looking forward to the sequel, which I understand will be released later this year.
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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.
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VINE VOICEon 27 June 2009
Was this really the best novel by a female writer in 2008? The judges of the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction seemed to think so -- but if that is the case British women's literature is in a poor state indeed.

In The Road Home, Rose Tremain has eschewed the historical novels that have made her reputation in favour of a contemporary setting. Lev, an Eastern European immigrant makes the long journey from his unnamed country (one assumes that it is Poland; but there is some confusion for Lev hails from near Baryn, which is actually in the Ukraine) to London so as to better his prospects. Through the kindness of strangers he finds work, makes friends, has a love affair, and eventually saves enough money to return home and set up his dream business. The premise is basic, but holds promise. However Tremain fails at every opportunity to make this an enticing novel.

Its most fundamental flaw is that it offers no real insight or commentary on the immigrant experience. The initial chapters, in which we are told of the harshness of Lev's passage to England, are moving and sometimes revelatory, but after this he leads an implausibly charmed life. There's the drunken gregarious Irish landlord; the chef boss whose lines are surely borrowed word for word from Gordon Ramsey's `Kitchen Nightmares'; the sluttish girlfriend whose attraction to Lev seems more like a middle aged fantasy than anything that would happen in real life. He lives in a vaguely fashionable part of north London (wouldn't most minimum wage earning immigrants be sharing a house with 20 others in Neasden or Thamesmead?). The exploitation, racism, tedium and harshness of immigrant life are largely overlooked.

In fact many things don't add up at all. Lev chain smokes (£6 a packet) and goes to fashionable pubs (£4 a pint), has his cushy north London flat share (£90 a week), makes frequent mobile phone calls home (£1 a minute?) - but can only afford to send £20 a week (which is made out to be a small fortune; I'm certain it's not) back home for his family. There's plenty of other things that don't stack up too.

Eastern European readers on this site are better placed to discuss the clichés that Rose Tremain enforces onto them. Certainly the picture she paints of life in the Eastern bloc has more in common with the early-1990s than the 21st century, when the place has very much moved on from its post-Communist nadir.

Its protagonist Lev has an innocence that is initially endearing. But although he becomes more worldly he never really develops as a person. Aspects of his character are downright unsavoury - he sexually assaults a former girlfriend and makes no effort to visit his daughter back home in years - but there are never any real insights into his flaws. I found it impossible to sympathise with him after a period. Ultimately, like the book itself, he's just dull and rather unlikable.

Worse still, it's just not very well written. Although Tremain's prose rarely descends into cliché, there is no élan or flair in her writing. Large parts of the book are made up of meandering and meaningless conversations that would have benefited from closer editing. It is clear that she has no ear for conversation: everybody sounds the same, with the only difference between the Eastern Europeans and Britons.

This is not an unreadable book, but it's largely poor fare - at very best a way to waste a few hours on the beach. But don't go expecting insight into the immigrant experience, literary flourishes or even to be entertained. The Road Home is a dull and hackneyed attempt at a tale -- in many respects a worthy one - told badly by its author.
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on 19 October 2008
and what's with this hideous cover-your usual stereotypical approach to Eastern Europe. Do your homework first and then start thinking about writing a book.
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on 12 May 2017
I kept kicking myself as I read. With my experience of restaurant ‘plongeuring’ and knowledge of Polish people trying to make their way in London why couldn’t I have written this novel? The answer is simple. I could never have created the character of the dreamy, almost saint-like Lev – the novel’s main protagonist. Nor could I have fashioned his buddy, the cussing home truth-purveying Rudi who for the majority of the novel the reader encounters only through Lev’s internal monologues except – after Lev becomes a ‘citizen of London’ and acquires a mobile phone. Lev’s dead wife Marina is also a powerful presence throughout in the form of persistent recollections and makes this novel unique in that two of its three main protagonists aren’t actually part of the ‘immediate scene’, a point which Tremain frequently underscores with references to Hamlet. Clever stuff!
Lev, a saw-mill worker in some doomed Polish backwood - actually it was a backwood but the old communist government cut down so many trees that Lev is made redundant and travels to London to seek a new life. On the bus journey to London he meets Lydia, the strangest, most disconcerting yet hauntingly the most authentic description of the snobbery and prissiness of children who emerged from a society created by Eastern Bloc governments. While in London Lev meets a succession of characters, ranging from kind-hearted Muslim kebab salesman, through workaholic chef CK Ashe, to passionate red-haired guitar-playing and geriatric-befriending Sophie - whose younger friends prove to us that even hipsters can be supercilious and snobbish. Lev gradually establishes himself with a job and lodgings, but disaster seems never far away. Battered by matters of the heart and pocket he begins to evolve his Big Idea, but is it just another dream? To find out what it is and whether he does it you must read the whole novel!
There are some great lines; ‘…everything is difficult…’ and ‘…I could kill Sibelius, if he were not already dead...’ wails Lev. There’s also some inspiring writing style as Tremain adopts authorial voice to describe the mores of asparagus picking in East Anglia…Shades of Thomas Hardy? There’s an exhausting parade of subject matter including multicultural marriage, sweatshop labour, dispossessed youth driven to mugging, the GIG economy, and old age. My only criticism is that the novel seems too perfect; just the right length, a little touch of comedy – I could almost visualize Kevin Kline popping in and out - an algorithmically-perfect balance of Anglo Saxon words and the correct number of rather stereotyped sex scenes. It even put me in mind of that appallingly patronizing comment from the Walt Disney character at the end of Saving Mr Banks I paraphrase as ‘the role of the author is to put right the wrongs in life’ – oh dear, I hope that doesn’t hint too much of the ending. I suppose I expected more edge, or perhaps I’m just a touch jealous?
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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.
Norman Housley
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on 4 September 2010
I enjoyed reading this book as recommended by my mother. Lev has moved to the UK from an unidentified Eastern European country in search of work so he can support his friends and family abroad. The book is very true to life, charged and optimistic.

The author characterizes the average English woman as a creature who cannot be trusted. Most of the English women characters are lampooned, starting from an introduction to them out of the mouth of Lev's London landlord an Irishman, who warns Lev about getting mixed up with English ladies. This landlord has lost his daughter and property to an estranged wife who is doing everything in her power to estrange him from his daughter even more. Lev does start a relationship with an English girl, but like some of them, they seem to be interested in drink, sex and short term fun with no desire for commitment except perhaps with someone with money and power. When Lev finds work with a vegetable farmer, it transpires that his English wife has left him and had threatened to legally take over the farm, once more, the question mark over relationships with English women. Lev's landlord ends up happily with an Indian lady.

Lev on the other hand is a well grounded man with a vision, not to be ruffled easily by the problems that beset him like cleaning up pots and pans. Not only does he lose a significant job but hears about how his community back home and the life he remembers will be completely flooded over by a hydroelectric project. This inheritance of loss theme is a perennial thread through the book in the context of dealing with loss, rejection and poverty, especially in Lev's Eastern European homeland where people seem to have little culture or quality of life compared to London given the shadow of "industrial" communism.

Several interesting characters abound from Ahmed the Kebab shopkeeper, in trouble after Islamic terror attacks in London as customers boycott Muslim shops like his. The book is staged very well in London laced with food, sex and the resilience of the human spirit.

Well worth reading and a real page turner without being like a thriller or a romance, just a saga of life.
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on 15 October 2008
Ah, I see I'm the first to give this book just two stars. I did debate just giving it one star.

I wonder what Tremain was trying to achieve with this book. If it was a simple (simplistic) tale of a man moving to one country and yearning to be in another, it is a poor effort. Quite why Tremain is prepared to name streets in London, but not Lev's homeland, is mystifying. Lev's story is linear, bereft of genuine drama or crisis, and shot through with both inconsistencies and ludicrous stretches of credulity.

If she was trying to tell us something important about immigration, this was a cheap and shoddy effort. Low-paid manual labourers from eastern Europe end up doing low-paid work here. Well, well. Some people are nice to immigrants, some aren't. Mercy me. What, exactly, am I supposed to be surprised, inspired, or fascinated by, in this tale? I was certainly surprised by the number of beautiful women falling at Lev's feet. But that was the surprise borne of lazy writing, rather than a powerful insight into a social issue.

I wanted to read about Britain through another's eyes. I wanted to see from a different perspective. I didn't want to read about yet another twinkly, slightly drunk Irishman. I didn't want a lot of badly-written, unfeasible sexual encounters.

Let's face it, at best this is a harmless diversion. It's hardly the Grapes of Wrath, now is it? In ten years' time, people will wonder why on earth anyone bought this book. Tremain should stick to books about periods we can't remember, so that we can't gainsay her efforts as flimsy, inadequate, implausible and overrated.
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