miércoles, 31 de marzo de 2010

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

I approached Rose Tremain’s The Road Home expecting a vivid story drawn on a life of struggle, whose central character might grapple with life’s traumas, opportunities, joys and disappointments. I also expected that all of this would be placed in a setting where landscape, physical, social and psychological, but perhaps not political, would both inform and influence the characters’ lives. I was not disappointed, but for the most part I remained less than surprised, apart from the fact that Rose Tremain in The Road Home approached a contemporary political issue.

The Road Home has modern day economic migration at its core. Lev is Polish. He has worked in a sawmill in his home town, the less than prosperous Baryn. He has a family and he used to be married. But now, as a single parent, despite the assistance of friends and family, he finds there is no future at home, no visible means of support. So he leaves for London on a bus in search, presumably, of streets paved with gold.

On that journey he meets Lydia, a compatriot with connections and in some unlikely way or other they manage to stay in contact throughout the book. Clearly their lives were never meant to intertwine, but circumstance, in The Road Home, is forever a local confinement. It simultaneously restricts and empowers, and then conspires with time to create a bond of friendship between Lev and Lydia that transcends class, interest, geography, expectation and assumption.

Rose Tremain’s story takes Lev to different jobs, a kebab shop, two quite different restaurants, an old people’s home and a vegetable form. She has him encounter low life on the street, the high-brow in a concert hall, and also the other-worldly in a theatre. He spots pretence – it might not be that difficult! – but he also appreciated sincerity. He encounters self-obsession, honesty and love, always in unequal measure in every aspect of life. Eventually, his travels become both self-revelatory and enriching. He comes to terms with loss and turns the void in his life to personal gain.

There is no fairy-tale get-rich-quick ending for Lev. The Road Home is no sugary advertisement for individuality, no attempted apology for market capitalism. This is a personal quest to cope with personal tragedy and unacceptable economic reality. The road does eventually lead home, but only when Lev and his destination have both been transformed. In their own way, neither is the same as they were at the start. And, I suppose, that’s the point. Life takes us wherever it goes. As it drags us along, either we learn and survive, or merely survive, or not. The process is given. The result is speculative. Lev survives. And he learns. He is a credible, real character, with a credible, real life.

But there were aspects of The Road Home that I found disappointing. The scenario that adopted Lev at his destination was, for me, too isolated. Migrants often rely heavily on networks, but Lev has no contact save for Lydia, whom he met on the bus. He has no relatives to phone, nor friends, nor relatives of friends, nor someone from his home town who knew someone from somewhere else who just happened to be in business in Essex. This I found unlikely. In a literary sense, this liberated Lev from his background and thus enabled Rose Tremain to layer upon his experience exactly what she wanted. This was convenient.

It also rendered Lev’s point of view wholly individual. He apparently experienced everything in the naiveté of complete isolation, the foreignness of British behaviour thus presented as if seen in a laboratory analyst’s test tube. In this context, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Rose Tremain used Lev’s trials and tribulations merely as a vehicle to let off some steam about aspects of contemporary British culture that she finds abhorrent, embarrassing or reprehensible. This, and not Lev’s economic migration, is the rather failed political aspect of the book.

Christy, Lev’s Irish live-in landlord, was rather more stereotypical than he needed to be. A plumber with a broken marriage and a drink problem might be plausible, but the last Irish plumber I met in London had so much work he earned a fortune and owned several London houses on which he collected rents. Maybe his name was Christy.

Lev’s relationship with the eventually predictable Sophie also seemed unlikely. They worked together in a ground-breaking new restaurant, encountered the pretentiousness of a cutting-edge playwright and together even got involved in some social conscience. I would have no criticism here if Lev, throughout all this experience, had seemed more engaged, rather than experiencing everything as if he were merely a recipient. Out of your own context and background, you have the opportunity, even the right, to be super-opinionated, and this is a right that Lev seems to forego.

Overall, The Road Home is an excellent read. Its characters are engaging and its events are eventually both credible and poignant. I felt, however, that it lived too much outside its principal figure’s psyche. But then it chose to concentrate on his experience of change, one aspect of which is travel, itself, rather than his responses and judgments. Sometimes travel itself intensifies responses, and it is possible that Lev’s experiences explore this aspect of experience. So when he returns home, as the book’s title requires he does, he is a changed man. But now he is also newly skilled, enriched and motivated. The Road Home does more than a little of that for the reader as well.

View the book on amazon
The Road Home

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