2007, 384 P.
It took me some time to realize the cleverness of the title of this book, which seems far more a journey away from home, rather than towards it. Lev is an unemployed lumberworker and what we’d call today an ‘economic migrant’ from an unnamed Eastern European country who travels to England from his economically-hollowed out town to make enough money to carve out a better life for his family back home. He is not, as he emphasizes, “illegal” under the then-current Worker Registration Scheme that made it possible for workers from the central Europeans and Baltic A8 states to work in the UK, but he quickly moves towards that eddy of marginal casualized workers that underpin the hospitality and agricultural sectors of the UK economy.
Lev is a widower, with a young daughter after his wife Maria died with cancer a few years earlier. The daughter has been left behind with her grandmother. On the bus that bears him across Europe towards England he is fortunate to be seated beside Lydia, a teacher with similar dreams of economic advancement, whose English is much better than his. As Lev moves through a succession of poorly paid jobs, Lydia finds a job as a translator to a world famous musician and shifts into a different social and cultural milieu. But she continues to come to Lev’s assistance, even though he does not, in truth, treat her well.
His other piece of good fortune was to find lodgings with Christy, an Irishman reeling from the breakdown of his marriage and the loss of his daughter. Lev sleeps in a bunk in the daughter’s bedroom, surrounded by the pink plastic detritus of children’s toys. He and Christy drink too much, but they are good for each other.
Lev is a complex character. In many ways, he is a good man, but he is also proud, jealous and inclined to violence. He is also hard-working and quick, and when he gains a job as a dishwasher at the upmarket restaurant G K Ashe, he uses the opportunity to watch and learn. He becomes involved with Sophie, one of the other cooks, but when their relationship becomes too messy, it is Lev who is sacked. Sophie, like Lydia, is drawn into the celebrity culture of London when she becomes involves with the pretentious artist Howie Preece, but Lev continues to visit the aged care house where Sophie volunteered even after she had flitted into a new life. He works hard and gradually an idea coalesces for a new life back home, with his friend Rudi, his mother and daughter. It is at this point that I realized that this exile was all part of the way home- hence the title.
This book was my choice for my face-to-face bookgroup, chosen largely because I’ve enjoyed Rose Tremain’s work before and because I was aware that it had been awarded the Orange Prize in 2008. Such responsibility! (no-one likes to hear the words “Who chose this book?”) I feared that “the ladies” might think it too slow moving and at times I wondered where the book was going. I must confess to fearing with each page that something tragic or dreadful was about to happen, but instead Lev’s progress was slow and prosaic. But, along with my bookgroup ladies, I found the ending far more emotionally satisfying than I thought it would.
I’ve read critiques of the book where reviewers criticize the lack of specificity of Lev’s origins (thereby suggesting that all Eastern European countries were the same), or the political neatness of sending Lev ‘back home’ . Neither of these things bothered me. I remember being disturbed by the open prejudice voiced against Eastern European migrants in England when I visited in 2007 – precisely the time that this book was published- and the images we now see of young African economic migrants waiting at the Calais tunnel are challenging. I found that Tremain’s book put a human back into the images and stereotypes. She held back in the right places: there was no fairytale ending, but not did the whole thing descend into squalor or outright degradation.
And yes, the bookgroup ladies enjoyed it too.