by Rose Tremain
Rose Tremain has a facility for portraying the dispossessed with neither sentimentality nor cynicism. In The Colour, she wrote of a woman struggling for survival in the harsh landscape of a nineteenth century Australia riddled with gold fever. In The Road Home, we follow the journey of a man seeking his fortune in twenty-first century Britain. Both stories concern outsiders willing to sacrifice everything to succeed and in each tale, the virtues of persistence and hard work are extolled. Like all the best fables, the price of failure is high, and Tremain grounds her characters in a rich and realistic setting. The indignities of poverty and the cruelties of fate are never treated lightly. We see the abyss at our hero's heels.
Widower Lev has left his child in the care of his mother to travel by coach to London in the hope of earning enough money to send some back to them. His East European homeland is changing, progress is coming and with it the end of life in his valley. Already the trees that provided work and fuel in Auror have all been felled. Soon, the developers will build the damn to wash away the houses and jobs and farmland of his youth. Lev carries with him the loss of his beloved Marina and the aspirations of his friend Rudi, whose savings have helped him buy the bus ticket. Anxiety leaches from the pages as surely as the sulphur from the boiled eggs of Lev's co- passenger seeps from her hands.
What follows fulfills every expectation of impossibility and pain. Without Tremain's gift for the poetry of ordinary life, Lev's setbacks might prove an intolerable read. There is little pleasure in the life of an impoverished immigrant, scant comfort in the hearts of strangers. The brief interludes of joy are provided by fellow travelers and by the memories of happier times. 'Life is not for dreaming, Lev,' Lev's boss tells him. But it is Lev's dream that propels this novel. We are offered hope but never at the expense of truth; the human face of the migrant population. Tremain's authorial voice is strong but manages not to overpower the stocky figure at the centre of the book whose future she insists we invest in. As told by Tremain, it is an investment worth making.