Mi­gra­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jem Poster The Road Home By Rose Tremain Chatto and Win­dus, 320pp, $ 32.95

WITH nov­els such as Restora­tion , Mu­sic and Si­lence and The Colour , Rose Tremain has es­tab­lished her­self dur­ing the past two decades as one of Bri­tain’s lead­ing writ­ers of his­tor­i­cal fiction. In terms of qual­ity and pop­u­lar­ity, the genre is very much in the as­cen­dant, and Tremain’s books — stylish, in­tel­li­gent and am­bi­tious in their scope — have played a sig­nif­i­cant part in its rise.

It is eas­ier, in some re­spects, to han­dle the dis­tant past than to get a grip on his­tory in the mak­ing. With The Road Home, Tremain takes an im­por­tant con­tem­po­rary is­sue, en­gag­ing with the shift­ing present be­fore its out­lines have had time to har­den. The re­sult is a flawed but gen­er­ally im­pres­sive novel, its larger themes me­di­ated through the ex­pe­ri­ence of a rep­re­sen­ta­tive in­di­vid­ual.

When Lev sets out for Lon­don from the east Euro­pean vil­lage that has been his home for more than 40 years, he is fol­low­ing a well- worn trail. He is part of the wave of eco­nomic mi­grants on the move west­ward across Europe in search of bet­ter pay and con­di­tions. And like so many, he leaves be­hind not only familiar land­scapes and cus­toms but also de­pen­dent fam­ily mem­bers, his wid­owed mother and his moth­er­less daugh­ter.

Tremain skil­fully cap­tures the lone­li­ness and aim­less­ness of Lev’s early days in Lon­don as he tries to find a foot­ing on the em­ploy­ment lad­der. His alien­ation isn’t sim­ply a mat­ter of na­tion­al­ity: he’s an un­so­phis­ti­cated rural in­no­cent in a wicked city, a man whose fun­da­men­tal de­cency is partly at odds with the ways of the world in which he finds him­self.

But Lev has cer­tain ad­van­tages. He is in­tel­li­gent, hand­some and un­afraid of hard work. He has also had the good for­tune to share his jour­ney to Lon­don with Ly­dia, a for­mer teacher of English from his own coun­try. Ly­dia’s Bri­tish con­nec­tions prove help­ful and, lit­tle by lit­tle, Lev be­gins to es­tab­lish him­self as a valu­able and val­ued mem­ber of the mi­grant work­force. In the highly reg­i­mented kitchens of a pres­ti­gious city restau­rant, he must be­gin at the low­est level, wash­ing the pans and swab­bing the floors; but he keeps his eyes and ears open, learn­ing from those around him, and when a va­cancy arises among the cook­ing staff he is pro­moted.

Mat­ters are com­pli­cated, how­ever,

by

a re­la­tion­ship with a fel­low kitchen worker. Still griev­ing for his dead wife, Lev is not look­ing for a new lover, but he finds one nev­er­the­less in the per­son of So­phie, a vi­va­cious girl about town with a keen sex­ual ap­petite. It’s a dif­fi­cult if ex­hil­a­rat­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween two patently mis­matched char­ac­ters and Tremain makes it clear from the out­set that it’s un­likely to end with a wed­ding. When the re­la­tion­ship even­tu­ally col­lapses, Lev loses more than a lover; his job dis­ap­pears, too.

What fol­lows re­veals his strength of char­ac­ter as he picks up the pieces and be­gins to re­con­struct his life. Faced with the prospect of grind­ing poverty and per­pet­ual ex­ile, he is saved by a dream: the dream of re­turn­ing to his home

coun­try and set­ting up a restau­rant. The re­main­der of the novel charts his de­ter­mined, though by no means straight­for­ward, progress to­wards that goal.

If this were sim­ply a feel­good rags- to- riches story, it might not hold our at­ten­tion for long, but Tremain gives depth to the novel by set­ting the tra­jec­tory of Lev’s ca­reer against the dark and dis­turb­ing back­ground of a de­gen­er­ate world, one in which lives are poi­soned, lit­er­ally and metaphor­i­cally, in the name of progress. At the imag­i­na­tive heart of the book stands Lev’s me­mory of an abortive night- fish­ing ex­pe­di­tion he once made with his friend Rudi to an iso­lated lake in his home­land. The two men had planned to catch fish for food, but what they en­counter changes their plans en­tirely. In the beam of the car’s head­lamps the fish glow neon- blue, fill­ing the wa­ter around them with ghostly light. ‘‘ Ra­di­a­tion from some­where,’’ Rudi says, voic­ing an anx­i­ety that res­onates through the novel.

More im­me­di­ately wor­ry­ing is the news that Lev’s vil­lage has been cho­sen as the site for a new dam. The re­gion’s in­ter­mit­tent elec­tric­ity sup­ply is to be rad­i­cally im­proved, but at a cost to the vil­lage’s in­hab­i­tants, in­clud­ing his mother and daugh­ter. Lev blames him­self, won­der­ing ir­ra­tionally whether the im­pend­ing de­struc­tion of the vil­lage is con­nected with his aban­don­ment of it. He sends in­creased sums of money from Lon­don, brib­ing the cor­rupt au­thor­i­ties to en­sure his fam­ily is re­lo­cated to the best avail­able hous­ing, but the dis­rup­tion of hu­man life is, at a deeper level, ir­repara­ble and Lev’s per­sonal achieve­ments are ul­ti­mately re­vealed to be in­sep­a­ra­ble from a pro­found cul­tural loss.

It has to be said that, judged by Tremain’s high stan­dards, some of the writ­ing in this book is a lit­tle slack: there are points at which the flow of the nar­ra­tive is im­peded by the weight of metic­u­lously re­searched de­tail and some of the mi­nor el­e­ments of the plot fall into place too neatly to be en­tirely con­vinc­ing. But this is, over­all, a novel of con­sid­er­able dis­tinc­tion, of­fer­ing in­sight not only into the lives of Europe’s eco­nomic mi­grants but, more broadly, into the dilem­mas faced by hu­mankind at the thresh­old of the new mil­len­nium. Jem Poster is a poet, critic and nov­el­ist. His most re­cent novel is Ri­fling Par­adise.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Paul New­man

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