I didn't think I was in the mood for the seriousness of Rose Tremain's The Road Home, a novel about a Russian widower, Lev, who immigrates to London to find a job after the lumber mill where he works goes belly-up. But her characters are so alive, her style so fluid and unlabored, I found I had read a third of the book before I went to sleep last night.
After some miles, as the sun came up, Lev took out a cigarette and stuck it between his lips, and the woman sitting next to him, a plump, contained person with moles like splashes of mud on her face, said quickly: 'I'm sorry, but there is no smoking allowed on this bus.'
Lev knew this, had known it in advance, had tried to prepare himself mentally for the long agony of it. But even an unlit cigarette was a companion - something to hold on to, something that had promise in it - and all he could be bothered to do now was to nod, just to show the woman that he'd heard what she'd said, reassure her that he wasn't going to cause trouble; because there they would have to sit for fifty hours or more, side by side with their separate aches and dreams, like a married couple. They would hear each other's snores and sighs, smell the food and drink each had brought with them, note the degree to which each was fearful or unafraid, make short forays into conversation. And then later, then they finally arrived in London, they would probably separate with barely a word or a look, walk out into a rainy morning, each alone and beginning a new life.
What strikes me most readily as I read is how the novel tests the judgments I sometimes make when I encounter an immigrant on the subway or bagging groceries. It accomplishes this not by lecturing the reader with sobering facts but by inviting us to imagine being in the shoes of an immigrant - their longing for distant family, finding a job when you know almost none of the language, understanding the rush of words as you're trained when people mostly speak in idiom and slang, what it's like have only $100 in your wallet and that must keep you until you land a job. Tremain makes a case for imagination as a necessary accomplice of compassion.