Feeling insignificant given the vastness of the universe is not uncommon. A widowed, middle-aged Russian named Lev, who emigrates to England out of economic necessity, experiences this unrelenting angst as he tentatively navigates the unforgiving streets of London. The protagonist in Rose Tremain’s 2007 novel, The Road Home, Lev is certainly one of fiction’s most brilliant creations. In conjuring Lev’s triumphs and setbacks Tremain gives her central character a moral stature that becomes more and more evident as the narrative unfolds.
Lev has fled his tiny Russian village to find work so that he can send money home to his mother, his five-year-old daughter, and his best friend, Rudi. Stalking him like some kind of a beast is the memory of his wife Marina’s death from leukemia at age 36. So consistently does he brood over his loss that it becomes an undertow of depression. Each day he views his surroundings through a prism of unhappiness.
On the seemingly endless bus trip from Russia to London he sits next to Lydia, a Russian woman moving to England to work as a translator for a prominent East European composer. At intervals Lydia reappears in Lev’s life, but from the beginning there exists an imbalance in their relationship. Lydia desires closeness; Lev does not.
Trying to hang on to his meager supply of 20-pound notes, Lev sleeps in basement doorways and behind bushes. In the course of seeking employment he meets other marginal people, men and women who know first hand about disadvantage and pain. Though the basically handsome Lev is disheveled and in need of a shower, shave and haircut, a sympathetic Muslim kebab-shop owner gives him a job distributing leaflets, and, more significantly, treats Lev with decency and respect.
Thanks to Lydia’s kindness and efficiency, Lev is able to rent a room in a run-down house on the Belisha Road. His landlord there, an Irishman named Christy Slane, is another of Tremain’s delightful characters. She describes the first meeting between the two men who will soon become close friends:
“When the door opened, Lev saw a small, elfin kind of a man, with pale, nervous eyes and a flare of eczema across his nose. He wore an old white T-shirt and faded jeans too loose for his narrow frame.”
A small bedroom with bunk beds and bed linen patterned with colorful giraffes becomes Lev’s new home. The toy-strewn room had belonged to Christy’s young daughter who left with her mother when her parents’ marriage broke up.
And once again on Lydia’s advice Lev finds a job as a dishwasher in an upscale restaurant in Clerkenwell. He is informed by the manager:
“…a restaurant kitchen operates exactly like an orchestra. Everybody has to focus up and keep time. And there’s only one conductor, and that’s the head chef. So keep alert. Don’t rest. Don’t take breaks. Keep playing your instrument and play it in time. Then you’ll do well.”
Lev takes to the restaurant business, and almost immediately forms a career goal: someday he will be that conductor, that head chef – in his own restaurant. But in the meanwhile he must be patient. He must send money home. The only luxury Lev allows himself is a cell phone. Through his frequent calls to Rudi checking on village affairs, and through occasional flashbacks, Tremain seamlessly moves her narrative to Russia – village life as it is now and Lev’s sensibilities before losing Marina.
After diligently washing pots and pans for several months, Lev is promoted to vegetable chef, another job he performs conscientiously and skillfully. Amazingly, flares of happiness now and then light up his days. It is his injudicious love affair with the tattooed Sophie, one of his kitchen colleagues, that causes him to be let go.
Sophie was too tempting, too exotic, too available for an isolated, virile man like Lev to resist. Tremain describes her:
“Her face was wide and dimpled and her breasts large, and her legs looked chunky and strong. There was nothing about her that resembled Marina in any way.”
Definitely, there are two sides to Sophie. If she is a promiscuous, hard-drinking party girl, she is also a dedicated volunteer at Ferndale Heights, a home for the elderly. Every Sunday, her only day off, she spends hours there playing her guitar and showing interest and warm affection to each patient. Lev, too, is an enigmatic person not without flaws. Though he is steadfast in the financial support of his family, Tremain’s Lev drinks too much vodka. With or without the vodka he sometimes displays a short fuse, and these temper outbursts predictably have dire consequences. Interestingly, without ever losing his temper, he courteously puts up with blatant condescension while working in the restaurant kitchen.
Midway in the novel Lydia gives Lev a paperback, English copy of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. During bouts of insomnia he reads the book, an almost impossible endeavor because of his limited command of English. Tremain’s placement of the book into Lev’s hands is one of the novel’s most impressive devices. It serves as an example of the influence and universality of words written long ago – their power to help at life’s pivotal moments. Lev does not understand parts of the play, but he grasps its underlying philosophical truths.
For example, one must engage in life, not shrink from it as he had done following Marina’s death when he wanted “not to be.” Lev thinks of his friend Christy choosing to temporarily “not to be.” So miserable on Christmas Eve because his former wife refused to allow him to see his daughter, Christy imbibed alcohol and pills so that he would sleep for 36 hours until the holiday was over. Hamlet’s much quoted soliloquy is a passage that Lev instinctively understands. It encapsulated for Lev his own new outlook on life:
“To be or not to be: that is the question.
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?...
While Lev is working two eight-hour shifts per day as a cook, he receives a phone call from Rudi confirming what had been for sometime only a rumor: his childhood village would soon be completely underwater due to the construction of a dam. Lev must leave England, and consequently the novel’s final chapters are set in his native Russia.
Displaying her consummate artistry, Tremain has once again delivered a novel with a compelling plot, remarkably convincing characters, and richly detailed settings. She has offered the reader a look into a man’s very consciousness and a depiction of one of life’s moral heroes.