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The road to nowhere (Orange Prize 2008 WINNER)

The Road Home, by Rose Tremain

James Topham
posted 20 June 2008

I sometimes worry my reviews are a poisoned chalice, both for me and the books: it feels though the hand of fate guides certain titles to my door. I’ve reviewed a number of shortlisted publications and more often than not I tend to be allotted the winner. It came to no surprise to me, then, to hear Rose Tremain’s The Road Home had beaten all-comers and scooped the première women’s writing prize in English, the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. I wish that I could say the hype that surrounds its triumph is different from other cases. Unfortunately, I can’t.

Rose Tremain’s topic strikes a definite chord with the popular imagination. We first meet her protagonist, Lev, on a bus pulling into Victoria coach station. He has come from a country ensnared in the enlargement of the EU, an economic migrant come to the UK to support the daughter he’s left behind. We follow Lev’s travails as he is derided as an ‘illegal’, gets himself menial work in a kitchen, overcomes the embarrassments of cultural confusion, finds a girlfriend, and finally makes his way home. It is a scenario that has much scope for excitement, conflict and drama; after all many of the great writers of recent years have woven fascinating tales out of such diasporic concerns. It is, therefore, something of an achievement that Tremain manages to write a consistently boring novel. Despite The Road Home being sold in the cover blurb as a contemporary version of Candide - a work whose author overtly relishes pitching its naïve hero into increasingly horrendous situations - Lev’s passage is notably lacking in difficulty. After a few evenings sleeping rough in a park and suffering the indignity of being taunted by every stereotype of racist Britain who happens to pass by, he is helped by a friend, gets a job, moves into a house, works hard and does all right for himself in a largely unspectacular way. This, no doubt, is the dream of every immigrant who comes to Britain, it may even be the reality for some of them, but it does not necessarily great drama make. 

Lack of narrative drive then, is one of the novel’s main failings – but this is, nowadays, hardly a bar to winning high artistic acclaim in the British book industry. Far from it; it seems to be becoming an unavoidable necessity. A far greater problem is the narrative that does exist. If I were to say that during Lev’s stay in England he meets a racist copper, goes to a snobby concert at the Royal Festival Hall, attends an incomprehensible conceptual exhibition at the Tate modern, works for a celebrity chef, helps a father whose been denied access to his child, and wonders at the drunken loutishness he sees at pub closing time, you might start to get the impression that Tremain is trying to say a little something about the state of our nation. Indeed, if anyone can spot an incident in the book that doesn’t seem inspired by the Guardian editorials page, then I would be indebted if they would point it out.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with topicality per se; but as Tremain is intent in writing a novel about contemporary society, then she must ask herself why. Novels are, by their nature, a more reflective art-form than tomorrow’s recycling bin innards of our daily press. If fiction simply regurgitates common popular opinions – even though Tremain parrots commendably liberal ones – then why write literature at all? If we don’t have more to say about our country than a 1,000 word commentary piece or blog could conceivably say, if we can’t transform society beneath our gaze when we write, rather than merely iterate ad infinitum the all too common tropes of the popular media, then why choose the novelistic form at all?

This leads me to a serious doubt that I could not shake whilst reading The Road Home; it is a doubt over the book’s truthfulness. Or perhaps, to be more specific, over the book’s veracity. I don’t know what it’s like to leave my home, travel many miles to a place where I face poverty and prejudice, and the myriad difficulties an immigrant to our shores faces. However, Tremain’s book has not convinced me that she has any idea either. She has said of her novel that ‘when we become involved with an individual story, empathy arrives and our attitudes alter’. Reading it, I cannot help but feel that she too readily falls into the modern trap set by this all-to-easily bartered notion ‘empathy’, a trap which prompts us to think ‘how would I feel in the other’s place,’ rather than, ‘can I understand how the other might feel?’. Tremain transports herself into the place of Lev - the poor man, the immigrant, the other - but she does so by transfusing her identity into the character she has created, not by asking how his identity might differ from her own. When Lev wrinkles his nose in distaste at the pissed British louts in the street, or raises his eyebrows wearily at our celebrity-obsessed culture, it feels that his is a mere puppet for the white, middle-class, liberalism of his creator.

And this leaves a nasty taste. For, despite its best efforts, The Road Home is performing a surreptitious act of appropriation. It feels awkward that the past Lev mourns and finally returns to is presented as though behind frosty glass – it is a place of mystical tests of endurance, and characters dispensing folksy wisdom; it feels over-idealised, it doesn’t quite ring true. The feeling is also present that, by taking on the moral innocence of the outsider, the immigrant, the other, Tremain is mythologising him as much as the anti-immigration lobby that seeks to demonise him. And what’s more, she is loading him with preconceptions and prejudices that are identifiably not his, but her own.

We return again to the question that is posed so often, I feel, by reading British contemporary literature today: where is the ground rock of truth on which our literature, if it is to live on, will be re-founded. This need not be literal, experiential truth (although it is noticeable that the last great movement in English literature wrote about Tremain’s themes - displacement, identity, diaspora - having experienced all these things themselves), but it does need to be a cold hard truthfulness that is beyond the pretence and mimicry which have so often been apparent in the voices heard in the last few years. If there is one thing that Tremain’s victory over a field of all too similar books proves, it is that we are still searching for that ground rock, and that the books we laud today will pale in comparison when we find it.


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