Book review: The Road Home

Book review:
The Road Home by Rose Tremain

GOOD, BUT NOT GREAT

The moving of people from their native places in search of a better life and livelihood is as old as the history of evolution itself. Taking place in this universal movement is the journey of Lev, an East European migrant in London.

The Road Home engages you from page 1 with a simple opening line, “On the coach, Lev chose a seat near the back and he sat huddled against the window, staring out at the land he was leaving.” It draws you in not because it is unique, but because it is such a familiar scene. You already know the answers; still, you want to know what he is leaving behind and where he is going.

With the journey come the relationships that are at the heart of Lev’s experiences. They keep you absorbed with heartwarming conversations and comforting food. Tremain constructs a touching account of the people Lev meets. Through all the strangeness, he discovers an old, familiar bond with them. They are the same people because their story is no different from his. It’s the story of existence. Instead of Lev in London, it could have been Omar from Syria looking for work in New York. Or Raju toiling in Mumbai.

The novel is engaging in its realism and contemporariness. What is missing is depth and description. The move to a new land offers a wonderful canvas to depict the myriad complexities of the journey and destination. Except for a couple of art and culture encounters, the more intimate experiences of London are lost in the daily quest for a meal, shelter, and wages. That Tremain does not mention her protagonist’s country specifically does not interfere with the narrative. Still, it is a gap that robs the opportunity for rich detailing about Lev’s country and culture.

Through a play that he watches with his British lover Sophie, the book offers us a peek into London’s dilettante and their pretentious dalliances with art and theatre. In the play, Dicer the protagonist molests a doll that has been customised to look like Dicer’s young daughter Bunny. Lev’s friends hail the play as ‘groundbreaking’, ‘brilliant’, ‘radical’, and ‘brave’. There is a ‘need to shock’, they state with great determination. “British theatre needs to be taken to a place that it has never visited before – the toilet”, declares Andy Portman the playwright. It is a telling contrast that Tremain sets up between the life and priorities of people. The satire, albeit gaudy, slams home. Lev is enraged, but you will be snorting. That’s the thing about pretences. Different people react differently.

Tremain is not coy either about using her characters to notify the world about her views. Her voice can be clearly heard in comments like, ‘Public Works, Lev. You know, the very term terrifies me to the gills. Because you can never imagine anything good coming out of there. It’s meant to sound philanthropic, but what it signifies to me is some consortium of strangers replacing a thing you love with a thing you need’. 

The Road Home is a good read and the characters are authentic and relatable. The trouble is that they lack deepness and discernment in their description. Think of Atticus or Ma Joad or Jeeves or Hermione Granger or Mrs. Bennet. Their characterization had so much insight and strength. Lev or Ina or Christy won’t be in their league. It keeps the book from being counted among the greats.

For those who haven’t read the book, I won’t reveal how Lev’s journey ends. Either way, there would have been criticism – ‘too miserable’ or ‘too good to be true’. Tremain makes her choice and miserable or good, it is okay.

Will Lev make it in London?

It is a question that you will ask through Lev’s travails.

In a way, that is our question too, isn’t it?

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Those words, they make me…

I sailed the seas with Odysseus
Went with the Famous Five on adventures
Never imagined I would fly a broom
Or see the world compressed in a room

Praying for Dantés, whispering – go, go go…
Relishing revenge with the Count of Monte Cristo
Adoring Atticus and admiring Rhett
Scorning Anna but forgiving Scarlett

Picking oranges with Ma and Tom Joad
Driving the truck on an endless road
Listening to John Galt and Rearden
Of vision and steel, these intriguing men

Lying curled up, weeping for Hassan
Will Sohrab smile again; can Amir be forgiven
‘There’s a way to be good again’ – a haunting question
‘For you a thousand times over’ – such a classic expression

Pride and Prejudice, I lived it all
War and peace, I saw it all
Goblet of Fire, I did it all 
Alice in Wonderland, I revelled in it all

Those writers, they wrote for me
Those stories, they were made up by me
Those books, they made me
Those words, they make me

Those books, they made me
Those words, they make me