How I long for a sequel! The Road Home, by Rose Tremain

July 26, 2010 at 5:29 pm (Book review, books)

Have you even  become so involved in the lives of fictional characters that they continue to inhabit your mind after you’ve finished the novel? I am having this experience after reading The Road Home by Rose Tremain.

What a lovely, deeply felt novel this is! Lev travels by bus from his native country in Eastern Europe to the UK. His purpose: to earn some money. Jobs are all but nonexistent in his country, especially since the closing of  the sawmill where he and his friend Rudi had worked. Rudi, still living in their native land, at least has his wife Lora for company. Lev is widowed, having lost his beloved Marina to leukemia while she was still in her thirties. They had a daughter, Maya, who lives with Lev’s mother while he works to obtain funds for all of three of them to live on.

As it happens, Rudi has one other asset besides Lora: a dilapidated old car that’s held together with the proverbial spit and chewing gum. This is the infamous “Tchevi,” which serves Rudi as a taxi service and transportation for all occasions. That is, when he can get it to run at all!

In one of their early adventures with this highly unreliable vehicle, Rudi, gets out of the driver’s side and slams the door shut. Which door promptly detaches itself from the car and falls on the snow at his feet. He and Lev manage to re-attach it, and they continue on their way. Later, as dark comes, ice forms on the windshield. The wipers prove all but useless:

Lev took off  the woolen scarf he was wearing and put it round Rudi’s neck. then he got out and opened the trunk and took out one of the three remaining bottles of vodka from the straw and told Rudi to turn off the engine, and as the engine died, the wiper blades made one last useless arc, then lay down, like two exhausted old people fallen end to end beside a skating rink.

Nothing to do in a situation like this, obviously, but to break out the spirits and soothe their frustration…

But all this takes place before Lev’s leave-taking. After a seemingly interminable journey, he finally arrives at his destination: the great, teeming city…

And at once Lev finds himself floundering. He is “legal” and has tried to learn the language; nevertheless, he is at sea. He is bewildered by the culture into which he has been suddenly thrust. At first, Londoners treat him with a mixture of indifference and outright hostility. Lev finds himself  at times oscillating between despair and disgust.

He stared at his face in the plastic mirror and tried to see in it some glance or trait that he could admire, but in the ugly light of this toilet his face looked yellow and ghostly, barely human. There was no light in his eyes.

And despite the currently bleak conditions in his homeland, he finds himself at times filled with longing for the place – not so much as it is now, but as it was in the past. Here he recalls Christmas with his parents Stefan and Ina:

Ina would kill a goose and cook it with rosemary and chestnuts, and Stefan would open a bottle–or two–of his best vodka, and the day would slide peacefully toward darkness and sleep. It was a kind of dying, Lev remembered. A surrender. As though, once the senses had been stilled to this deep rest by rich food and heavy drinking, no morning would intrude on them ever again. And when that morning did come, glaring white at the small windows, the three grown-up occupants of the house…staggered out of their beds in astonishment. They felt like Lazarus.

Despite adversity, despite setbacks, Lev persists. After a rough start that includes a brief period of homelessness, he finds work washing dishes in an upscale restaurant called GK Ashe. The job’s not much, but it’s the beginning of his climb out of poverty. Not only has he found  gainful employment – he also finds love, in the person of Sophie, who does “veg prep” at GK Ashe. Then a banner day arrives when, upon Sophie’s promotion to second sous-chef, Lev himself takes on veg prep for the fussy, exacting chef de cuisine.

In writing, there is sometimes a fine line to walk between the heartwarming and the mawkish. Rose Tremain never crosses that line. She paints a compelling portrait of good hearted people struggling to maintain their dignity and self-respect, even when the odds are against them – especially when the odds are against them. The reader is at one with Lev and his struggles. Even now, weeks after finishing this luminous work of fiction, I wish I knew how and what he is doing at this moment. I wish him – all of them  – well: Lev, his kindly Irish landlord Christy Slane, daughter Maya, mother Ina, best friend Rudi – even the notorious Tchevi!

Rose Tremain won the 2008 Orange Prize for The Road Home.

Rose Tremain acknowledging her prize

****************************

Rose Tremain is the author of one of my favorite historical novels: Restoration. This was made into an uncommonly good film in 1995, with a superb cast headed by Robert Downey Jr. – that’s him in the rather fantastical get-up!

3 Comments

  1. Kay said,

    I’m so glad you liked this book Roberta. I read it last month and found it engrossing and, in the end, heartening. I have been speculating as to which Eastern European country Lev came from. We spent several weeks in Poland last summer and gained some firsthand insight into their post-Cold War problems. However, it sounded to me as if Lev came from somewhere in the former USSR.
    I agree with you about Rose Tremain–she does a fine job of walking the line. Thank you for featuring this novel; your reviews influence a lot of readers to try someone they might not ordinarily read.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Kay,

      As always, thanks for your gracious words and for reading “Books to the Ceiling.”

      The Road Home is one special book. I had tears in my eyes at the end…

  2. End of summer crime fiction roundup: some good reading here « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] utterly believable character. (And she has excellent literary taste: one of her favorite authors is Rose Tremain.) The same is true for Will Grayson. He is that rara avis in crime fiction: a happily married […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: