Two months after its publication, everybody ought to be talking about THE ROAD HOME. It ought to be the book of the year, and it isn't. It's my book of the year, though. I dreaded an uplifting parable of the Immigrant Experience. What I got was a hero of such specific integrity, depth, decency and pain that his journey becomes not simply the story of a stranger in a strange land, but a revelation of the truths "foreigners" tell us about ourselves.
When the sawmill where Lev worked closes down ("They ran out of trees"), he leaves Auror, his (fictional) village somewhere in Eastern Europe, entrusting his young daughter to his mother's care (his wife has died, tragically young). In London, some people are kind to him; others, casually cruel: "This is how these people see me," Lev thinks at one point, "as a turnip with no intelligence and no voice." He never comes off as a victim, though. He finds a rented room and a job washing dishes in a chic restaurant, and ultimately discovers a passion and talent for cooking that he parlays into a dream for the future --- and a pathway back to his homeland.
Lev is almost old-fashioned in his sensibility (and even in his vices, cigarettes and vodka). In teeming, driven modern London, he is allergic to the brittle, pseudo-creative denizens of the culture of cool. But he seems to have an instinct for connecting with those who appreciate his discipline and understand his lingering sadness (it's no accident that he improves his English by struggling through HAMLET; it's as if the ghosts of Auror have followed him to Britain).
Probably my favorite moments in the book are set in the restaurant. Rose Tremain evokes the controlled chaos, pinpoint timing and near-military precision of a professional kitchen --- it's run like a small autocratic state --- in several brilliantly cinematic scenes. What's exciting is to watch the evolution of Lev's taste: his first encounters with refined cuisine (Auror is not known for four-star bistros), his experiments with cooking, and finally his fantasy of a restaurant of his own. There is an affection for food here --- what it is, what it does, where it comes from --- that makes THE ROAD HOME a nourishing novel as well as a moving one.
I was enthralled, too, by Tremain's dense, Dickens-sized cast of fully realized supporting characters. To name a few: Rudi, Lev's volatile friend back home, a taxi driver whose temperamental secondhand "Tchevi" is a symbol of the U.S. as another "promised land." Lydia, Lev's accidental companion on the bus to London, who develops a crush on him and is often his reluctant savior. His landlord, Christy, a good-hearted, alcoholic Irishman whose wife has left, taking their daughter. The staff of the restaurant, most significantly Lev's lover, Sophie ("Hardly anybody is good," she tells him. "But you are"). The Indian woman Christy courts. The elderly residents of the nursing home Sophie and Lev visit on Sundays. The Suffolk farmer, Midge, "lonely lord of his fruit and vegetable kingdom," who hires Lev as a picker.
Tremain's complex, imaginative people are certainly part of her literary gift, but she also gives them splendidly authentic landscapes to inhabit and big questions to grapple with. I've read five of her eleven novels, and what's astonishing is her range. She writes wonderful historical fiction that is both intimate and panoramic: RESTORATION and MUSIC & SILENCE are set in the 17th century; THE COLOUR is a tale of the 19th-century gold rush in New Zealand; the provocative SACRED COUNTRY, with its transsexual themes, ventures into bold new territory; and THE WAY I FOUND HER is a sophisticated coming-of-age story set in Paris.
THE ROAD HOME, though modern in subject and style, has something of the 19th-century novel about it (that's a compliment). It's meaty, ungimmicky and transporting. Its picaresque plot unfolds without strain as Lev shapes his expatriate existence and mourns his wife and former life. Perhaps the ending is a bit neat. As the title suggests, Lev does in a sense come full circle. But is that a bad thing? (Ambiguous or downbeat endings, I think, are overrated.) Would it have been better for Lev to die --- like his wife, like Hamlet --- or remain a lonely exile? I don't think so.
Although THE ROAD HOME is set in Great Britain, its lessons certainly apply to our own country. A nation of immigrants, it is also a place where someone of a different culture may be treated with loathing and suspicion, as an alien "type" rather than a person. Without being in the least preachy, Tremain shows us ourselves --- the good, the bad and the unforgivably ignorant --- through Lev's eyes. Reading her book has already made me more generous and less suspicious as I ride New York City's multi-ethnic subways. Squeezed into a crowded rush-hour car, I remind myself that the exotically dressed stranger beside me undoubtedly has, like Lev, a human story that should invite not fear but compassion.
--- Reviewed by Kathy Weissman