Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

This is the story of a journey made by Lev from the poverty and sameness of Eastern Europe to England in search of work and wealth. It is a journey of grief as Lev seeks to shed the crippling loss of his dead wife in search of healing and solace.

Tremain traces the journey of a migrant—an ‘economic migrant’ not an ‘asylum seeker’—who mentally lives in two worlds, amid grief and hospitality and one who experiences a generosity of welcome shadowed by loneliness, being different and disconnection. With acute observation the author paints pictures of the migrant—the aimless walking, the worry of having the right denomination of money, the exhaustion of doing everything in another language, the power of smoking to mask hunger pangs and falling asleep with the companionship of a vodka bottle. (p21)

The Road Home portrays the new migrant’s dogged determination to keep walking on the road without falling:

“Homelessness, hunger, these things just had to be borne for a while Lev told himself.” (p43)

Further down the migrant’s road:

“Then, before the cigarette was gone Lev knew that he was falling….falling helplessly into sleep. He had time to reach out, to extinguish the cigarette, and then he surrendered to the long fall. All he understood was that he had to try to rise up, to get free of his wooden cross, to resume his road.” (p44-45)

The Road Home is a journey of memory. The book reveals the crippling and haunting power of painful memories. It also pictures the positive sides of memory—how randomly and spontaneously places on the journey can return to thrill and people formerly encountered can appear and call in surprising and beneficial ways.

This book graphs the journey of a dream. It reveals the capacity of a dream to resurrect and give a firm footing. Lev develops what he calls his ‘Great Idea’ which urges him forward on the road as the details are disclosed and the dimensions worked out. Yet there is always a realistic ambivalence as Lev wonders if his ‘Great Idea’ has substance or whether he is merely “gawping at shadows.” (p296)

Through achieving targets and milestones on the journey Lev becomes hopeful, enthusiastic and filled with ardor for his project. Whether the dream materializes or not Lev learns that a great dream gives something to cling to and helps to quell his tormenting memories. Later and looking back, he is able to testify that “dreams are what’s got me by!” (p348)

Lev draws sustenance for the journey from other sources. Reading the Shakespearean play, Hamlet, he sees some parallels in his own life and he comes to affirm that “Words written long, long ago could travel beside you, and help you at moments when you could no longer see the road.” (p313)

Rose Tremain writes with an effortless style in descriptions that are captivatingly detailed and often humorous. In introducing Lydia, a fellow-traveler to “a separate future in the unknown city” of London, the author describes her as “a contained person with moles like splashes of mud on her face.” Later Lydia is referred to as the “mole-flecked woman” with Lev studying “her face with its martyrdom of moles.” (p6)

Like a talented musician, Tremain uses words and phrases to play a wide range of emotions. She expresses the searing loneliness of the migrant, the inadequacy in a new culture, the unbearable abandonment and the volcanic rage that burns away many opportunities. In particular, the author is masterful when picturing Lev’s sense of losing touch with where he was, the instability of a migrant’s life and the dread that mars normality by the thought that a crushing catastrophe is just around the corner. Her clever arrangement reveal how tiredness, bad dreams, black thoughts and the feeling of being adrift all contribute to a inescapable blanket of heaviness and misery. The different themes of love are described from the love that is poisoned by unfaithfulness to the innocent and uncomplicated love of a liaison.

Rose Tremain, The Road Home (London: Vintage Books, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 60.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Road Home.