The Road Home

Paperback | July 22, 2008

byRose Tremain

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In the story of Lev, newly arrived in London from Eastern Europe, Rose Tremain has written a wise and witty book about the contemporary migrant experience.

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. . . . Lev is on his way to Britain to seek work, so that he can send money back to Eastern Europe to support his mother and little daughter.

Readers will become totally involved with his story, as he struggles with the mysterious rituals of “Englishness,” and the fashions and fads of the London scene. We see the road Lev travels through Lev’s eyes, and we share his dilemmas: the intimacy of his friendships, old and new; his joys and sufferings; his aspirations and his hopes of finding his way home, wherever home may be.

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In the story of Lev, newly arrived in London from Eastern Europe, Rose Tremain has written a wise and witty book about the contemporary migrant experience. 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. . . . Lev is on his way to Britain to seek work, so that ...

Rose Tremain’s books have won many prizes including the Whitbread Novel of the Year, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Prix Femina Etranger, the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Angel Literary Award and the Sunday Express Book of the Year.

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:320 pages, 7.78 × 5.12 × 0.92 inPublished:July 22, 2008Publisher:Random House UKLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0099478463

ISBN - 13:9780099478461

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From the Author

AUTHOR INTERVIEW Your books generally seem to require great leaps of the imagination – in previous books you have taken the reader into the minds of a 13-year-old boy loose in Paris, a visitor to the 17th century Danish court, a young woman caught up in the New Zealand gold rush, and many more diverse people. The Road Home is no exception – you take us into the mind of an economic migrant from Eastern Europe trying to carve out a niche in an inhospitable London. Is this a challenge you deliberately set yourself? Why do you think you choose such diverse characters to inhabit? A. The central character of my first novel, Sadler’s Birthday, was a 76 year-old man.  Readers found this surprising (I was 30 when I wrote the book), but in this gap between myself and my creation lay immense imaginative freedom, and it was this that gave me the courage to embark on the book.  Of course, I drew on observations of elderly men that I knew (my grandfather in particular), but the need to imagine Sadler’s feelings, memories and longings was what kept me interested in the story.  And since then, I’ve deliberately built my fictions around characters who are distant from me, in gender, place or time - or all of these.  The moment I get close to my own biography, I feel boredom (and even mild self-dislike) creeping up on me and so my writing loses pace.  What research did you do for the novel? A. The most important piece of research I did for The Road Home was to interview Polish field-workers in Suffolk.  I learned a lot from them – about what they hoped to achieve in England, how they viewed the people here, and how much they worried about their parents at home, left adrift – after 40 years in a Communist political system – in a world they might never fully understand.  I also read many books about life in post-1989 Eastern Europe and returned to my own notes made on earlier visits to East Berlin and Russia.  This research drove me to locate Lev’s backstory in an unnamed country, to create for myself the imaginative freedom mentioned above.   In the writing, in discovering Lev – his melancholy, his kindness, his seductive appearance, his naivety, his brave ambitions – lay all the joy of this book.   To use a GK-style culinary image, research was only one necessary ingredient in the assembling of a complex dish.You have said in a Guardian interview that you are ‘the kind of person who can feel sentimental affection for a teak plank’. Are material possessions important to you? Did that make it more difficult to put yourself in the place of someone like Lev, who has only a single bag of possessions when he arrives in London?A. I’ve never been poor as Lev is poor, but my early years as a writer, in a cottage in Suffolk, were materially constrained.  I had no difficulty imagining Lev’s plight in London.  Being homeless is one of the worst things I can imagine.  When I’m travelling abroad, I try to make a home-like space out of hotel rooms or rented flats.  I guess this is a girl-thing.  It seems that most men can come and go more or less happily from impersonal interiors imprinted by a solitary toothbrush and a copy of the local TV guide, but women find this harder.  Any materialism in me drives not towards clothes or cars or gadgets, but towards making my house as consoling and welcoming as it can possibly be, and that includes trying to make it beautiful.Most of the sympathetic characters in The Road Home are migrants of some kind – Christy, Jasmina, Lydia and most of the employers and strangers who take pity on Lev all come originally from countries other than Britain. In contrast almost all the native Britons are unsympathetic to Lev’s difficulties, ridicule him, or let him down. Is this coincidence or were you making a deliberate statement about British attitudes to immigrants?A. This doesn’t feel true to me.  Sophie is a ‘native Briton’ and so are GK Ashe, Mrs McNaughton, Midge Midgham and Ruby Constad.  All of these people, though flawed, are good-hearted.  Sophie, it’s true, is seduced away from Lev by a vain charlatan of a native Brit artist, but let’s not forget that she gives up her Sundays to work in an old people’s home and shows exemplary courage in the male-dominated world of GK’s kitchen.  GK, OK, is an ambition-crazed chef, but his behaviour towards Lev strikes me as pretty fair in all the circumstances. And the other three treat Lev with courtesy, imagination and kindness.  So, no, this isn’t a story that polarizes natives and migrants.  It tries to show the truth of the situation as I perceive it, that the most Brits want to be welcoming to migrants, but have worries – or indeed extreme anxieties – of their own which sometimes prevent them from doing this.Most of Lev’s experiences in the UK are to do with food – from his very first job delivering takeaway leaflets, when he is paid in part with a greasy kebab that he can hardly swallow, through the kitchens of GK Ashe to the caravan in the asparagus fields. You describe food in the book in very detailed and vivid terms. Why did you choose to frame Lev’s journey though the UK in this way?A. One of the things this novel is doing – in the age of the Celebrity Chef – is looking at what food represents to different groups of people at different moments in their lives:  food as survival (the Baryn lumber yard lunches, the beans and potatoes at Longmire Farm), food as comfort (Lydia’s hard boiled eggs, Christy’s ‘tea-and-toast’ life), food as ethnic expression (Jasmina’s mini-banquets, Panno’s unchanging Greek menu), food as a small business opportunity (Ahmed’s Kebabs), food as a distraction from solitude (Ferndale Heights) and food as a route to fame and fortune (GK’s high-end restaurant).  Lev experiences and interacts with all of these and finds his own way  home through the idea that good food can provide one of the consolations in life that keeps people sane.  I think most readers would identify with this.  Meals are civilising punctuation points in any human day.  Yet in Britain, even as restaurant food improves immeasurably throughout the country, many families have lost the habit of sharing a meal together and this means they’ve probably also lost the bonding habit of sharing details of their lives.  So you could argue that the food we eat and the way we eat it contributes to family stability or breakdown.Your portrait of Britain’s cultural scene is not very flattering – Lev’s disastrous visits to the theatre and his encounters with various unattractive and pretentious artists and playwrights make for funny but excruciating reading! Do you share his bemusement – or even disgust – with the contemporary arts scene?A. It’s important to remember that Lev’s views aren’t my views, but those of an outsider, even of an innocent, who has had no previous contact with a post-modern, wearily ironic and knowing culture such as ours is today. What shocks Lev wouldn’t necessarily shock either me or the readers.  But I do feel that the contemporary art scene in Britain, built on the word of a handful of collectors and curators and having money as its first language, has a hollow core.  Much work described as ‘art’ today isn’t even MADE by the artist himself.  What would Turner have thought of that?The jacket of The Road Home compares Lev to Candide. What parallels do you see in the two? Did you share Voltaire’s satirical and political intent in writing The Road Home? A. Lev resembles Candide not in age (Candide is a very young man and Lev is 43) but in his ‘innocent’ eye.  Much that is familiar to us Lev is seeing for the first time and so we see it again – differently.  And this was part of the core idea of this novel – that we get a subtly altered take on our world and so think of it in ways that may surprise us.  Other parallels apply.  Like Candide, Lev has already suffered his own ‘Lisbon earthquake’ (that random and terrible event which makes a mockery of  any idea of the existence of a benign God) in the form of his wife’s early death, and he’s ever afterwards torn between melancholy pessimism and Panglossian optimism.  He understands both ‘the absurdity of going on living’ and the joy of it.  A review of The Road Home in the Spectator noted ‘Rose Tremain writes as effortlessly and rhythmically as she breathes’. Does this reflect your own experience of writing? How would you describe the process?A. I enjoyed that observation about writing and breathing!  I think, if you took writing away from me, if, for instance, I became blind (as my mother did, so it may be in my genes) or if I suffered some kind of mental deterioration that prevented me from thinking logically, I would find it very hard to go on breathing.  Martin Amis has observed that a writer’s existence without writing would seem ‘thin’.  I think this is apt.  And boredom would be the big enemy in the shadows.  In the existential quest for meaning in my life, writing is the thing which keeps me most sane.

Bookclub Guide

STARTING POINTS FOR YOUR DISCUSSION ‘Through Lev’s eyes, we see London as the incomer views it and it is not an attractive sight: alternately moneyed and poverty-stricken, its inhabitants obsessed by status and success.’ (Edward Marriott, Observer) Do you agree with Marriot’s assessment of how Lev views London, and do you feel Tremain paints a realistic picture? In her author interview Rose Tremain says ‘I’ve deliberately built my fictions around characters who are distant from me, in gender, place or time - or all of these.  The moment I get close to my own biography, I feel boredom (and even mild self-dislike) creeping up on me’. Does this reflect your own feelings as a reader? Do you prefer novels which reflect your own experiences or take you somewhere else? What do you think you have in common with Lev? Food is a very important motif in the novel. How does Tremain illustrate Lev’s journey in terms of food? Why do you think she only begins to describe the food of his own country towards the end? In the author interview Tremain says that in her view, ‘most Brits want to be welcoming to migrants, but have worries – or indeed extreme anxieties – of their own which sometimes prevent them from doing this’. Do you agree? What worries and anxieties do you think Tremain is referring to and how are these played out in the novel? Have you ever lived in another country? If so, how far did your experiences reflect Lev’s? What did you find challenging about establishing a new life in a different culture? Did it affect the way you read the novel? If not, do you think you could ever do what Lev did? What would you find hardest to leave behind? Lev’s relationship with Sophie becomes very dark when he turns violent towards her. Why do you think he has such difficult relationships with women? In the end Lev returns to his family and builds a life with his new found skills and money. Why do you think that the novel has ended in such an idealistic way? Do you think that this ending is possible for immigrants?

Editorial Reviews

“One of the finest writers in English.”
Daily Telegraph

“Tremain is a magnificent story-teller.”
Independent on Sunday