Rose Tremain's The Road Home is a good, old fashioned novel, and I mean that in the best sense. A central character wants something badly, sets out to get it, and meets lots of obstacles along the way. He meets people who help him as well as enormous setbacks. I won't tell you if he gets what he wants or not, but lets just say that the book resolves. The story has social and political resonance within the context of our world, but for the most part, it is the story of the man - a flawed man - a dreamer - who sets out from Russia to live in London and to make his life better. 24 chapters each hold an episode. There's a well developed backstory that drives the action as well as defining Lev, the central character. His wife is dead, and behind him he leaves his mother, five-year-old daughter, and a best friend. There's a love interest, there are some villains, and he makes a few true friends along the way. There are no letters, no emails, no one writes a novel within the novel, it doesn't combine mystery, history, and recipes for great Chinese food. There is one third-person narrator telling one story - don't get me wrong, I really enjoy clever writing, multiple genres, and fancy meta-fiction - but clearly I must have been in the mood for a book without a gimmick. I found reading it as satisfying as a baked potato.
Tremain is talented enough to get suspense out of a scene in which Lev, promoted at work from dishwasher to vegetable prep overnight, falls behind on a busy night in a trendy London restaurant.
The chefs' demands came fast and didn't slacken. Labouring his way through the skinning and seeding of tomatoes for a coulis, he was aware that Pierre needed spinach, and GK, who was moulding courgette cakes, shouted to him that he'd run out of mint leaves. Lev left the tomatoes sliding in a bloody mass to the far edges of his chopping area, tore a bundle of mint from the chiller, rinsed it and began picking off the leaves and hurling them into a colander.
'Lev!' shouted Pierre. 'Spinach! You're holding up table six.'
The mint leaves stuck to Lev's hands. He realised he should have picked the leaves off first and rinsed them afterwards. He saw juice from the tomatoes begin to drip down the front of the work station. He wiped his hands, ran water into his sink, threw in the spinach, then returned to his mint, shutting off the cold rinse-faucet with his elbow. He glanced up to see GK pausing in his own work to stare at him and he knew the import of this electric stare by now. No words were needed.
He thought about the promised seven pounds an hour. With that, he might be able to increase his payments to Ina by about ten pounds a week. And then, instead of bleating on and on about his return, she might at least begin to be proud of what he was trying to do...
Tremain aims a couple of swipes at the trendy London arts scene by imagining an opening night performance of a new play through Lev's eyes.
'Well,' siad Howie Preece, 'it's Portman. Portman's a genius. He's always right on the fuckin' button. Bet half the fuckers in Chelsea are screwing their kids senseless.'
'I think it's brilliant,' said Sophie.
Preece was about to speak again, but Lev snapped: 'Why?'
'What d'you mean, "why"?'
'Why you say this is brilliant, Sophie?'
'Because I think it is.'
'Because it is. Because it's radical and brave and - '
'It's shit,' said Lev.
'Well, there's a downer for Andy!' said Howie. 'The man from a distant country thinks Peccadilloes is a piece of - '
'I could kill this man!' said Lev.
'Excuse me?' said Preece.
'To see this: a father, a doll, his daughter... How can he show this?' Anger and misery swept through Lev like a rising tide of sickness. He jabbed a finger at Sophie - an authoritarian gesture he detested in other people - saw he try to recoil but be prevented by the crush in the bar. He knew he was becoming out of control, knew he should have tried to master his feelings, but why master feelings that, in this unreal world he'd just entered, felte real and true?
He jabbed at Sophie again. 'You!' he said. I understand you now. You don't see anything! You see what is "fashion", what is "smart". That's all that matters to you. Because you don't know the world. Only this small England. You know nothing, nothing.'
'Hey,' said Preece. 'That's a bit out of order, isn't it? What's the matter with you?'
Lev was trembling. His arms felt like wires, sparking with electric current. He felt their lethal power. 'The matter is I'm mad,' he said. 'Crazy, maybe. But I'm not sick, like this play. At home I have a daughter, Maya. I love this daughter - '
'Who cares?' said Preece. 'That's so not relevant. Who cares if you've got a daughter? This is art. "This is cutting edge - '
I enjoyed the many levels on which this scene functioned - the condescending assumptions the monied and arty classes can have when someone was born in another country and speaks with an accent, Lev's innocence but also his decency and his ability to see through pretention, the difficulty of making friends across cultural boundaries, it also establishes Lev's temper - a character detail we have only heard described prior to this point in the book.
Tremain adds a lovely touch to the book - Lydia, a friend, gives Lev a copy of Hamlet as a gift. When he receives it his English is not really up to reading it, but a few months later he begins slowly to work his way through it. What we get is a progress report on Lev's mastery of the subtleties of the language, we watch that struggle on an intimate level. It is clear that Lev does not have disdain for art at all, but his imagination is limited to the range of his own experience. Hamlet becomes a parallel character, another lone man who must stop dreaming and act to defeat the ghosts of his past.
Lev lit a cigarette. He took the smoke deep into him, imagining Hamlet alone on the stage now, ready to speak what was in his heart. He'd be young. Probably about thirty. Young and thin, like the boys who used to come down to the Baryn lumber yard, in winter, looking for work. Not princes of Denmark: boys who'd never known work. They used to stand around, silent in the low light, watching the shrieking saw coughing out sparks and oragne dust as it ate into the pines. Imagining how it would be to join this world where men laboured thourgh every season - in snowfall, under arc-lilghts on black afternoons, in driving rain and raw cold, in the first songstruck days of spring - and took home money, week by week. Lev hated to see them there, didn't like to look at their faces. Afraid to see his own face in theirs.
...O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
This was better. He could understand more words.
Heaven and earth! Must I remember?
Remember what? Back and forth, back and forth to the notes, his mind a saw, trying to shriek through a tough bark of words.
It is Lydia and her friend Pyotor (an artist) whose wider experience of the world must show Lev how to use imagination not to merely escape an unpleasant present temporarily, but how it can help his dreams gain a foothold in the world in which Lev lives and change that world for the better. I'm talking in a lot of abstractions about this book, I know, but that is because it was the story that kept bringing me back to it and I don't want to ruin that for you. The Road Home is a meaningful, entertaining, and compelling book with nothing up its sleeve - just a good story.
Here is my other post about The Road Home.