20 Books of Summer, #10: The Road Home by Rose Tremain #ReadingWomen

I’m taking part in the Women’s Prize for Fiction’s #ReadingWomen challenge, aiming to read all 24 previous winners of the Women’s Prize before the autumn. Now I have two left to go!

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Rose Tremain’s The Road Home won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2008. It follows Lev, an immigrant from a nameless Eastern European country, as he struggles to make a life for himself in England while sending money home to his mother and his young daughter. For much of the novel, Lev is positioned as a neutral social observer, and Tremain often seems to be using him (as well as some of the other characters that he meets) as a mouthpiece for the things she wants to say about the weirdnesses and excesses of English society. For example, when Lev goes to see an experimental new play that features a character who watches child pornography, he thinks it’s ‘disgusting’ and gets into an argument with his girlfriend, Sophie, about it:

I think it’s brilliant,” said Sophie… “it’s radical and brave and – ” 

It’s shit,” said Lev… “I understand you now. You don’t see anything! You see what is “fashion”, what is “smart”. That’s all that matters to you. Because you don’t know the world… I’m not sick, like this play. At home I have a daughter, Maya. I love this daughter – 

Who cares?” said Preece [an artist.] “That’s so not relevant. Who cares if you’ve got a daughter? This is art. This is cutting edge.”

Because of this, Lev doesn’t develop a distinctive voice or character of his own. For much of the novel, he remains a cipher, flipping between different registers depending on what Tremain wants from the interaction; which makes the one scene where he smashes out of his anodyne default even more shocking. As this argument about art heats up, he suddenly, for no obvious reason ‘grabbed Sophie and locked her body to his with his arm around her neck… She began to choke and gasp.’  Later on, when she comes round to see if he’s OK after he’s fired from his job, he rapes her. Nevertheless, the reader seems to be expected to continue keeping company with Lev as if all of this is forgivable and understandable; it’s not presented as a line that he’s crossed.

While this is horrific enough by itself, the problems with this novel run even deeper. As I’ve suggested, Tremain uses Lev to criticise certain aspects of English society, but this never amounts to a fundamental engagement with the problems of capitalism and globalisation. In other exchange where she seems to be making her characters spell out one of the messages she wants to impart, Lev is talking to Midge, the owner of an asparagus farm that employs migrant labour. Lev thinks that Midge’s Chinese employees are so happy all the time because “in England, they feel more… free than in China. And this freedom gives them happiness.” (The Chinese stereotypes in this novel are something else.) Midge replies: “Never think of our lives as “free”, do we? Think of them as one long work shift… But perhaps, in this country, we take a lot for granted.” Later, Lev is talking to a friend who works as a mortgage advisor: she comments ‘We have a mountain of personal debt in this country… in Britain, everybody wants it now, hurry-scurry: new house, new car, new fridge, new kitchen…’. This novel was published just before the financial crisis, but this message is still pretty awful: England is the promised land, and individuals’ problems are their own greedy fault. It’s notable that Lev encounters barely a jot of xenophobia throughout the whole novel, despite anti-immigrant sentiment being rife at the time; prime minister Gordon Brown made his infamous ‘British jobs for British workers’ statement the year this novel was published.

So if England is mostly all right, actually, what about the nameless country Lev has left behind, and which he still thinks of as ‘home’? The trouble is that we don’t know anything about it. Not only is it never identified, everything we do learn is generic; it’s poor, people struggle to get work, vodka is the most popular drink, Lev’s mother sews traditional things, Lev’s best friend runs a dodgy taxi business with a patched-together car. By refusing to make this country real, Tremain plays into stereotypes of a faceless, grim Eastern Europe defined solely by its Communist past, and contrasts this no-place with the opportunities offered by a England – mostly by a London – that is rendered in specific detail. As Eveline Kilian argues in her analysis of the novel, ‘There is nothing in Lev’s country that seems worth preserving: no traditions, no culture, no political ideas; it is a place with “[n]o future”‘. [1] It’s only by adopting British values that Lev can build a successful life for himself back home, opening a restaurant that he’s sure will make money because it will be ‘the first one in my country where the food will be truly good’. I can’t imagine that The Road Home felt especially timely or insightful even in 2008, and I fervently hope that it wouldn’t win the Women’s Prize if it were published today.

[1] Eveline Kilian, ‘Frames of recognition under global capitalism: Eastern European migrants in British fiction’ in Narrating Poverty and Precarity in Britain ed. Barbara Korte and Frédéric Regard (DeGruyter, 2014), p.138. [Paywalled, but you can read an extract here.]

19 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer, #10: The Road Home by Rose Tremain #ReadingWomen

  1. Oh gosh, this is interesting – I read this 11 years ago and don’t seem to have picked up on any of this – I know my reviews were shorter then, but I did still (I hope!) pick up on troubling points as you have here. I’m a bit ashamed of past me! I have never read anything by her since, though, so I can’t have been that enamoured long term.

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    • I can imagine this would have read differently when it first came out – I was interested to read the comments from the Orange judges which all hail it as a timely story about the migrant experience. It felt a bit like it was being rewarded for topic not execution!

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      • I read this in one weekend, sick in bed, in 2011. Like Liz, I didn’t pick up on any of the issues you mention; I’ve simply remembered it as a heart-warming story of an immigrant struggling towards success, even if he wasn’t always completely likeable. (I’ve never forgotten the humiliation of that scene of his phone going off during a concert at the Royal Festival Hall.) I’ve read another five of Tremain’s books and have had mixed experiences, though overall I think I tend to like her historical stuff more. I wonder what my experience of rereading this now would be like. It’s a nightmare trying to think about what I would vote for as the best Women’s Prize winner from the last 25 years because I’m second-guessing my reaction to all the ones I read a long time ago (e.g. I couldn’t get through On Beauty on a recent rereading attempt).

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        • I’ve had to accept that my ‘best of the best’ Women’s Prize winner, and especially my ranking of the 25 titles, are going to be highly dubious because I read some of the books so long ago and don’t have the time or energy to re-read them all. e.g. I technically ‘read’ Carol Shields’s Larry’s Party aged 20, but didn’t get on with it and don’t remember anything about it!

          It’s interesting that both you and Elle have highlighted that you liked the uplifting immigrant narrative of The Road Home. I found the atmosphere of the first few chapters (which are otherwise well-written and relatively unproblematic) intensely grim, but I can’t put my finger on why.

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    • Yes, I was actually interested to read a migration narrative that focused on Eastern Europe, as I’ve read a lot of fiction about migration from Commonwealth countries, but unfortunately this didn’t work!

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  2. Oh no, this sounds like a mess. This was one of the easily-available titles I was planning to read before the “winner of the winners” vote, but now I’m suspecting it’s so available because no one likes it… I think I’ll definitely focus on other winners before worrying about getting to this one. What a shame that it focuses on such backward messages to the detriment of doing anything worthwhile! I wonder how it won in even in 2008.

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  3. My discomfort with this novel crept up on me slowly, and I think that was in part because Lev manages to get a job, a girlfriend, friends and a life in the UK, which made me really happy – it felt like an antidote to the “immigrant lives can never be anything but awful miserable relentless slogs” strand of contemporary fiction – but all of the problems you’ve highlighted are so legit. The rape scene really took me aback: it’s very violent and seems to come out of nowhere, and we’re definitely still meant to like Lev at the end of it… why?! The Anycountry nature of his homeland actually did ring alarm bells while I was reading, though (it struck me that it was a sneaky way of not having to do much research).

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    • Interesting – I found the whole ‘feel’ of the novel to be quite grim, which dampened any sense of joy in the life Lev makes for himself in Britain. There were a couple of scenes with Sophie/with other workers at the restaurant that felt happier, but then that all gets overturned, and quite quickly!

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