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,
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.