Migrant workers make a huge contribution to life in Britain, keeping public services, industry and agriculture running. Yet they are generally depicted in the media as a burden on society – “undesirables” who clog up resources and hog public services.
So it is a relief to see the sympathetic depiction of migrant workers contained in Rose Tremain’s latest novel The Road Home, which has just been released in paperback.
The Road Home has attracted praise from the critics and won this year’s Orange Prize for women’s fiction. It tells the story of Lev, a 42-year old man from an unnamed eastern European country who comes to Britain to look for work.
The novel begins with the quote “How can we live, without our lives?” from The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s 1930s novel about economic migrants. Like Steinbeck’s great work, The Road Home empathises with its main protagonists.
Lev is leaving behind the desolation of his village. The sawmill he worked at has closed down, because all the trees in the surrounding area have been cut down. This mirrors the devastation in his own life after his wife Marina dies of leukaemia.
Still in mourning for her, Lev comes to London to earn money to send back to his mother Ina and daughter Maya. Lev’s desperation to provide for them conflicts with his feelings of guilt at being away from home.
Tremain skilfully uses Lev’s viewpoint as a stranger to Britain to analyse the problems of our society – celebrity culture, individualism, greed and materialism.
London is nothing like Lev imagined it would be before he came. He finds few friends and allies among British people. But he is helped and befriended by other migrants, recent and not so recent.
Lev grows close to Christy Slade, an Irish plumber who becomes his landlord, through their joint loneliness in the strangeness of London. Both are distanced from their young daughters and struggling to begin a new life.
The Road Home is beautifully written, like all of Tremain’s previous work, most of which are historical novels. It is impressive that she has decided to explore the life of a migrant worker. Lev’s internal life and personal history are rendered convincingly. But where the novel does fall down is in its depiction of the lives of migrant workers in Britain. Most face harsh treatment from gangmasters and ruthless employers who want to squeeze as much from them as possible.
Lev’s experience is very different to this. With the help of his friend Lydia, who is a fluent English speaker, he finds a job as a kitchen porter at a trendy restaurant.
There he meets Sophie, who works in the kitchen at the restaurant and they embark on a tempestuous relationship. She reawakens his sexual desires, which had lain dormant since the death of his wife.
Lev is thrust into the world of Sophie’s friends, who are incredibly successful playwrights and artists. His angry and violent reaction to a play about incest by one of Sophie’s friends leads to the end of both his relationship and his job at the restaurant.
But Lev’s time at the restaurant has given him the idea of becoming a chef and opening up a restaurant in the city near his hometown. He attempts to redeem himself and to save his family and friends from a life of dispossession and poverty.
All this tends towards accepting the notion that migrants can earn huge amounts of money through sheer hard work – and extreme good fortune in Lev’s case. Lev can return to his home country and realise his dreams in a society being transformed for the better by capitalism – although some people have to pay the price for that.
But perhaps it’s overly critical to be disappointed in a work of fiction for being unrealistic. In spite of the frustrations I had, the underlying tone of sadness and emotional authenticity of the novel won me over. The Road Home is a captivating read that draws you into Lev’s life and loves. Tremain is to be credited for that.
The Road Home by Rose Tremain is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, for £7.99. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to » www.bookmarks.uk.com