The British writer, Rose Tremain, won the 2008 Orange Prize for her novel, The Road Home, the story of an eastern European immigrant who comes to London to remake his life. In presenting the award, the judges called Tremain “always the bridesmaid, never the bride”. With £30,000 ($61,000) in prize money, she’s blushingly jubilant at last.
The Road Home tells the story of Lev. Unemployed and grieving for his dead wife, he leaves Eastern Europe for London, where he seeks work to support his ailing mother and young daughter back home. For Lev, the migrant experience is a bewildering one, a collision of his drab, unhopeful life with a world that gleams and glitters and costs a ‘bloody’ fortune. The language, public transportation, the food, even the weather are all unfathomable at first. In time, Lev finds a job at a trendy London restaurant and a room in the flat of Christy Slane, a divorced plumber with an artistic sensibility and an unhealthy fondness for drink. Homesick and adrift, Lev spends most of his time remembering the past, evoking treasured moments with his wife, Marina, and good times spent with his beloved friend, Rudi. Day-to-day experiences intrude on these reveries, however, and Lev soon embraces his new home, embarking on a love affair, getting a promotion, and relishing life for the first time in years. When he hears a dam will be built back home, a project that will flood his village and make his family homeless, it is a call to action. With great effort, Lev brings a piece of the new world back with him and reinvents himself in the process.
Tremain weaves together a vibrant portrait of the migrant experience. Old-fashioned Lev, who kisses the hands of women, the drunk and mournful Christy, the buoyant Rudi, and plain Lydia, with a splash of moles across her face—each is lovingly rendered. These are characters you care about. The Road Home is a sombre work, but the narrative, gently lulling to begin with, builds in force until you won’t want to put it down.
The Road Home, Rose Tremain, Random House Australia.
A version of this review was first published in The Courier-Mail in 2007.