One could call Rose Tremain's splendid new novel, The Road Home—which won Britain's prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction in June—a novel of globalization, in so far as it tells a timely story of 21st-century immigration in multicultural London. But such a designation would fall far short of capturing the magic of Tremain's subtle and sensitive portrait of a hopeful, hardworking, fundamentally good man trying to get a foothold in an often hostile foreign land.
Lev, a 42-year-old widower from an unnamed Eastern European country, has left his mother and young daughter behind in the little village where he worked in a lumber yard for 20 years, before the short-sighted post-totalitarian regime harvested the last of the trees. Arriving in London, unskilled, underfunded and with limited English, Lev is temporarily homeless, but too proud and ambitious to remain so for long. With the help of a woman he met on the long bus ride to England, he lands a job as a porter in the kitchen of a posh restaurant. It is one step up from slave labor, but Lev grasps the opportunity, and with uncomplaining diligence, proves himself not only a good worker, but also a fast learner who absorbs the fine points of the restaurant trade by observing.
He rents a room from Christy Slane, an Irish plumber who hit the alcoholic skids and, having lost his wife and most of the access to his daughter, is on the oft diverging road to recovery. Christy and Lev become more than landlord and tenant: they become fast friends, with the Irishman's good-natured fatalism a welcome counterpoint to the new arrival's more solemn industriousness. It is significant that Christy is himself an immigrant, as are the few others who deign to offer Lev help or comfort as he tries to settle into London life. The Indian proprietor of the bed-and-breakfast where he spends his first night, the Arab shop owner who gives him his first day's labor, the two Chinese migrant farm workers he shares a caravan with during a stint picking vegetables—it is these fellow émigrés who offer him fleeting glimpses of human kindness, not the British-born who more often than not dismiss Lev with the epithet, "asylum seeker." When Lev does break into the Anglo world by having an affair with his co-worker, Sophie, it will, as Christy warns, end badly.
As he struggles to remain afloat in London and send money back home each week, Lev stays in touch with his oldest friend, Rudi, via cell phone. Rudi, a colorful schemer of outsized proportions, is both a lifeline to the familiar, if dismal, world Lev can't help but miss, and an unwelcome shackle to sad memories of the painful cancer death of his young wife. As their native country struggles with its post-Communist future, Lev feels cut off, and he dreams of returning home in triumph, bringing with him the money and know-how acquired in the West. It is this seemingly unachievable ambition that drives the final pages of the novel with a kind of desperate optimism that the reader cannot help but embrace.
Based on a simple summary of the episodic plot, it might seem that Tremain is exploring well-trod ground in The Road Home. But she is such an able storyteller and Lev is such a well-drawn, sympathetic, even amiable character, that it is hard to set aside this book once begun. Though the story she tells is in some ways specific to London and to Lev's unidentified homeland, it is impossible not to be reminded of a reality that often gets overlooked in the ongoing debate over immigration in our own country. Politics aside (and The Road Home is not first or foremost a political novel), Tremain makes us think deeply and forces us to care about the human souls that inhabit the faceless immigrant service workers we encounter—and often barely notice—every day. It is so easy to forget that those who cook our food, clean up after us, maybe care for our children, are people too, with aspirations that go far beyond the simple need to eat and live another day; that they have families and lovers and, perhaps most significantly, memories.
One should approach much-lauded, award-winning books with skepticism, but this time the Orange Prize committee got it right. Put The Road Home on your own shortlist.