'And Lev thought how all of this was odd but necessary and already told him things about the world he was travelling to, a world in which he would break his back working - if only that work could be found. He would hold himself apart from other people, find corners and shadows in which to sit and smoke, demonstrate that he didn't need to belong, that his heart remained in his own country.'
Rose Tremain is a veteran of the literary prize circuit. She has already won the Whitbread Novel of the Year (Music and Silence, 1999), the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (Sacred Country, 1992) and the Prix Femina Etranger (Sacred Country, 1994); and has been shortlisted for the Booker (Restoration, 1989). She last appeared on the Orange shortlist in 2004 with The Colour (a book that I keep hearing about and always mean to pick up), although she has never won. Do I rate her chances this year with her tenth novel, The Road Home? Not if I'm honest. No doubt, it is a beautifully executed piece of work, with a refreshingly traditional narrative voice and significant thematic bite. Tremain is a practised writer - all of her similes are in key; her dialogue is well-pitched; and she allows her scenarios to unfold with an admirable steadiness. So many contemporary writers are in a rush, but not Tremain and, generally, I like to take things slowly. For my own part, I greatly admired it. But The Road Home is somewhat lacking in energy, and irony, and occasionally its foundations look rocky, as though there isn't enough preliminary research to carry the weight of the plot. More than that, it lacks charisma, and I predict that it will be too low-key for the judges tastes.
The Road Home tells the story of Lev, one of the thousands of Eastern European immigrants who have travelled across Europe to find work in Britain. As the novel opens, he has little choice - the sawmill in which he has spent his whole working life has closed down, and there are no good jobs for unskilled middle-aged men anymore. Auror, the sleepy village that he must leave behind, is dying a slow death. At the age of 42 he must either make a move or sentence himself and his family to destitution. And so he leaves behind his elderly mother, Ina, and his five year old daughter, Maya, as well as the memory of his wife, Marina, dead from cancer at 35, and climbs aboard a bus to London. He understands that, in a way, the upheaval is a blessing:
...he'd had to defy in himself that longing of his father's to resist change, and he thought: I should feel grateful that the sawmill closed, or I'd be exactly where he was, immortal on a chair. I'd be enslaved to a lumber yard until I died, and to the same lunch each day and to the snow falling and drifting, year on year, falling and drifting in the same remote and backward places.
Like many other fictional travellers, he is looking for more than work - he has left home to find himself. He is on a quest, and is as much a seeker of truth as an economic migrant.
As the novel progresses it is clear that Tremain is deeply engaged with this duality - both the fairytale and the reality of immigration. When Lev finally arrives in London he is shockingly unprepared for the future. He has no job, no plans, no place to stay and has drastically underestimated the amount of money he will need to subsist. For the first week he ends up sleeping on the street, and delivering fast food leaflets for £5 a day. If this were any other novel, he would be doomed. But Tremain has sprinkled fairy dust over him and soon enough, with the help of a fellow immigrant, Lydia (who he met on the bus), he gets a job in a top-class restaurant and a flat-share with an amiable Irish drunk, Christy Slane. At first his work as a dish-washer is degrading and exhausting - a long commute, 14 hour days - but he perserveres, and learns, and is promoted to vegetable prep. He even falls in love.
It isn't all easy, of course. Being an immigrant is never easy. Lev is quickly disabused of his romantic notions about Britain, the promised land, and its blessed natives:
The other people in the street started to look grotesque to him, fat and mocking and sick. He'd somehow naively imagined that most English people would look something like Alec Guiness in Bridge on the River Kwai, thin and quizzical, with startled eyes, or like Margaret Thatcher, hurrying along with purpose, like an indigo bird. But not, in this place, they appeared indolent and ugly and their heads were shaved or their hair was dyed and many of them sucked cans of cola as they walked, like anxious babies, and Lev thought that something catastrophic had happened to them - something nobody mentioned but which was there in their faces and in the clumsy, slouching way they moved.
He sees that Britain has an underbelly of discontent, and that dissatisfaction and despair are common enough amongst London's millions. His new friend, Christy, is a case in point. A lonely layabout plumber, he is a drunk who beat his wife and, when she left him, lost access to his beloved daughter. He and Lev fit well together, if only because they're both estranged fathers, outcast from the family unit. Tremain is quick to show that we are all immigrants of a sort: unable to properly communicate our feelings, alienated from our communities, and lonely. She uses Lev's perspective, and Christy's bitter wit, to turn a magnifying glass on British culture at large, and burns up the things she sees as divorcing us from ourselves. Greed, celebrity worship, cultueral inertia and, of course, xenophobia, all come under her remit:
Success. Celebrity. Christy had once remarked to Lev that 'Life's a feckin football match to Brits now. They didn't used to be like this, but now they are. If you can't get your ball in the back of the net, you're no one'.
She doesn't miss a chance to aim a well-placed kick at contemporary art. When Lev's British girlfriend, Sophie, whom he adores, abandons him for an up and coming Damien Hirst-esque figure, the prose is bitingly dismissive of the artist's installation of lights that flash on and off (ala Martin Creed, who won the Turner Prize for his installation, The Lights Going On and Off, in 2001).
Tremain's subject matter is extremely topical in the UK right now, so much so that I wonder if other audiences could properly connect with it. It is difficult to capture or explain the widespread xenophobic paranoia that surrounds the influx of Eastern European workers into Britain under the new EU regulations. Newspapers like The Daily Mail (boo!) and The Sun (boo!) have fostered a feeling of resentment towards them, and both our BBC and Channel 4 have devoted 'seasons' of TV programmes to economic immigrants. You hear the same catchphrases time and time again: 'They're stealing all our jobs', and 'They come here and live off our benefits/use our health service/live in our public housing', and 'Soon nobody will speak English around here anymore.' It is a hostility that crosses racial boundaries - if white, black and asian Brits can agree on anything, it is that the Polish are up to no good - and unites rich and poor, young and old. In reality, of course, it has little to do with the jobs or benefits or crime and more to do with the fact that many Brits find people from other countries distasteful and frightening, particularly if those countries are poor. Speaking English badly, or with a foreign accent, is a sure sign of degeneracy to some people.
Tremain captures this brilliantly in The Road Home. Language is her way of demarcating difference, and of highlighting Lev's otherness without making him alien. Lev speaks good English - if his syntax is weird now and then he makes up for it with a wide vocabulary - but he notices that native Brits treat him as though he is slow, and stupid, and that they find it difficult to hold a conversation. It is as though they have forgotten how to talk, or forgotten that he is a human being. The police are particularly guilty of this, treating his broken language as a sort of criminal offence, a symptom of wilful obstruction. Only Christy, with his strong Irish accent, speaks to Lev like an intelligent adult. How different his conversations with Rudi and Lydia are! After reading his stilted dialogue in English, and the disdain of others, his fluency in his native language is a shocking revelation. You realise how carefully Tremain has used dialogue to split Lev in two, creating Lev the Immigrant - awkward, hopeless, misplaced - and Lev the Man, with his kindness, grief and anger. As the novel progresses, and the two Levs come together, Tremain makes a wonderfully subtle bid for the commonality of experience and humanisation of immigrants. It is all very quiet, and tender, and topical.
Tremain rolls out the same tenderness for the characters themselves. Not only for Lev, but also for the people who help him: Christy, Lydia and Rudi, the best-friend that Lev has left behind in Auror. Lev is a perfect contradiction, both vulnerable to, and yet unperturbed by, life's trials. He is:
'fragile, easily distracted, easily made joyful or melancholy by the strangest little things, and that this condition had afflicted his boyhood and his adolescence and had, perhaps prevented him from getting on as a man.'
Throughout the novel he is emotionally unstable, oscillating wildly from apathy to loneliness to a terrifying desperation to be loved. And yet he comes to England alone, without support, and sleeps on the street, and works insanely long hours, and is almost friendless at first. He is relentlessly stoical in his determination. At first I thought this was because he was a man without fear but, no, Lev's fear is always lurking beneath the surface of the text, in his almost inhuman capacity for work and in his repeated phone calls home to Auror. Rather it is that he is a man who cannot admit of his fear, cannot let it interrupt his course of action, lest the desperation of his situation overwhelms him. I imagine this is the case for many economic immigrants. Their situation is make or break; Britain is their last chance at something better for themselves.
At first Tremain wants us to invest in Lev's apparent vulnerability. She plays up the contrast between him and his friend Rudi, who is never perturbed by anything:
Rudi never surrendered to anything... Rudi fought a pitched battle with life through every waking hour... In his sleep, Rudi's body lay crouched, with hs fists bunched in front of his chest, like a boxer's. When he woke, he sprang and kicked away the bedclothes. His wild dark hair gleamed with its own invisible shine. He loved vodka and cinema and football.
She spins these glorious tales of their life together, before Marina's death and before the saw-mill closed down - the story of how Rudi bought an old clapped out Chevrolet, and of how they went fishing in a toxic lake; of how they danced with their wives at sunset. It is a great platonic romance: Lev the sensitive dreamer, and his brash confident friend. Rudi is practically a fairytale figure, a powerful incarnation of the strength of will and the survival instincts that Lev lacks. Inevitably we come to see that the reality is quite the reverse. It is Lev, and not Rudi, who has the courage to leave Auror and make a new life for himself. It is Lev, and not Rudi, who decides to make a fresh start.
It becomes clear that our initial vision of Lev, of his kindness and his sensitivity is somewhat shallow. Because The Road Home is also a novel about masculinity, and about being a labouring man from an 'old world' adjusting to a new world order. After a while there is no denying that Lev is a chauvinist, prone to possessive jealousy and even violence towards women. He recalls how poorly he treated his wife when he (wrongly) suspected that she was having an affair, and when Sophie breaks up with him, he spews vitriol at her. In the most shocking scene in the novel, and in a moment so well integrated that you hardly see it coming until it is upon you, he rapes her. This is abhorrent, and hard to forgive, but Tremain asks us to at least try to understand it. Lev simply doesn't know about the kind of woman that Sophie is - independent, reckless and free; he doesn't comprehend the new gender balance at all. He hardly realises what he has done to her. When faced with it, he retreats in his mind to the masculine world of the sawmill:
A woman's treachery! As it would be, thought Lev. Because it's what the women do that kills us. On our own, even out in the cold dark of the lumber yard, we men survive. We stamp our feet in the snow. We drink tea out of old flasks. Someone tells a joke. Our shoulders ache like the shoulders of an ox under the eternal yoke. But we shake each other's hands, plan fishing trips, get drunk together, carry on...
Lev can't leave his gender identity behind in Auror, and it comes with him to Britain where it doesn't quite fit (although it would fit some places in UK better than others). His is the dilemma of innumerable men coming to terms with their masculine identity in the 21st century.
Unfortunately, The Road Home comes unstuck when it comes to a sense of place and, to a lesser extent, a sense of recent history. Lev's country of origin is never specifed. It is a no-place, a prototypical Eastern European country that we think we know so well: poor, grey, post-Communist and developing. When Lev returns to Auror towards the end of the book, he sees a place that we have all imagined and seen before in films:
Lev...kept wiping at the condensation from the steamed-up glass so that he could stare out at his country - at the abandoned farms and silent factories, at the deserted coal depots and lumber yards, at the new high-rise flats and the bright, flickering heartbeats to American franchises, at a world slipping andsliding on a precipice between the dark rockface of Communism and the seductive light-filled void of the liberal market.
It is a composite stereotype made up of impressions from the news and other novels. There is nothing to bring it to life. Rudi and Ina and Maya seem real, but they may as well be sitting in a blank, static landscape. It is a dead place for the reader, just as it is for Lev, and the future is always about leaving it. I can see why Tremain has chosen to write it this way - it's greyness is symbolic, like the land of the bad King in the fairytale. It is all about stasis, and the slow, creeping, drowning death. But The Road Home isn't really a fairytale. Lev isn't a stableboy travelling across mountains to make his fortune in a shining city, although sometimes it suits Tremain to cast him in that light. He is a middle-aged labourer on a bus to London, and the London he arrives in is really London. It has a sense of place, and time, and a living energy that Auror never has. It spoils the balance of narrative to have one and not the other. Worse still, it smacks of a lack of research.
I sense that Tremain has cut her Eastern Europe from a cloth that suits her. She wants Lev to arrive in Britain from a poor, innocent place virtually bereft of culture, a make-believe place where people eat a lot of cabbage, and wear tin jewellry, and work at the sawmill. As far as I can, she has had to set most of Eastern Europe back ten years, economically and culturally speaking, in order to acheive this setting. Arguably, the narrative demands it, in order that we can fully appreciate Lev's conflict over the issue of change from one world to another, but it doesn't sit right.
On the one hand The Road Home is a subtle work on the state-of-the-nation, exploring Britain's attitudes to immigration, language and celebrity from the view point of an outsider. On the other hand, it is a breed of fantasy complete with a questing hero and a make-believe land in turmoil. Given the disparity between the two, it is tempting to read Tremain's novel as either one of the other. A hard-hitting tale of immigration and despair, or a fairy story about the kindness of strangers and the power of dreams. In truth, it is both, and the ending confirms it. At first glance it seems outrageously happy, impossibly neat. But on closer inspection it is as much bitter as sweet, as much tragic as comic. Tremain is equivocal about the possibility of real change for Lev. Even though he returns to Auror, triumphant, she denies him the possibility of that perfect ending - human beings, she seems to be saying, are too flawed for that. Lev is still lonely, his wife is still dead and his country is still dying. He must make a devastating compromise between success and failure.
It is easy to underestimate The Road Home because it is traditionally told, and appears so distractingly simple. Also because it is has the flaws I've mentioned. But I think it is a wolf in sheep's clothing: earnest and soft to the touch, but bearing its teeth now and again in warning. I doubt it will win the Orange Prize, but it certainly won't be the last Tremain novel I read.