Lev looked at the cloth. He was indifferent to it. He felt indifferent to all that was untrue. Behind him, somewhere, he could hear a tennis game start up and he envied the players. He thought how, in his life in England, he never ran anywhere anymore, but only stood at his sinks or crept into bus shelters or wandered the streets with slow steps, like the steps of a n old man. And this realization wounded him the more because he knew suddenly – as he stood and stared at the shining holly so ridiculously festooned- where he wanted to run to. He stood very still, gazing at the ground. Then he pulled free of Lydia’s arm and fumbled for a cigarette. He’d shocked himself with his thoughts. He felt his hands shaking.
The Road Home begins with Lev’s long bus ride from the Ukraine to London. He leaves behind his mother and his young daughter, and his best friend Rudi. He brings with him the overwhelming sorrow of missing his wife, who died of Leukemia the previous year. Lev comes to London in search of work, as the only industry in his small town is lumber, and all of the trees have already been cut down. On the bus, Lev makes friends with a countrywoman, Lydia, who is traveling to London to work as an interpreter for a famous Ukrainian musician. They forge a tentative friendship, and both feel a sense of loss when they each go their separate ways in London. Lydia travels to a home where she is embraced by a loving couple, has a warm place to sleep and a job to do. Lev finds that the money he has so carefully saved will not go nearly as far as he had hoped in London, and soon finds himself sleeping in someone’s small yard. He finds work delivering pamphlets for a small kabob shop, a job that exhausts him, and pays barely enough to buy him food.
From here, Lydia helps him to acquire a job as a dishwasher at a fancy restaurant, and helps him to find a room for rent, in a flat he shares with Christy, a lonely Irish man pining for his own young daughter, who has been taken from him by his ex-wife, and isn’t allowed to visit. Lev sleeps in her little bunk-bed, surrounded by her stuffed animals and doll house, and feels grateful to have a job, a place to live, and a new friend.
Lev becomes more comfortable in London, learns some English, starts dating Sophie, who preps vegetables at the fancy restaurant. He sends money home to his family, calls and talks to his friend, tells stories to his new friends of his and Rudi’s adventures at home. He starts to settle in and make a life for himself, mostly looking backwards at his past. Then the news comes that his small village is going to be submerged deep below a hydro-electric dam, and he is pulled from his reverie and forced to look forward, to make a plan for how his mother, daughter, and friends might not only survive the dislocation that is being forced upon them, but also somehow come out of it better off than they were before.
I wasn’t sure whether I was going to appreciate this novel. I picked it up for Dewey’s Reading Challenge, as I remembered reading about it on her blog, and wanted to honor her in some small way after she passed away so suddenly. I’m glad that I did, because this book is a real treasure. The characters she brought to life will stick with me for quite awhile. Highly recommended. Rose Tremain won the Orange Broadband prize for fiction in 2008 for this novel. I’m thinking I may want to seek out more of her work.