Lev, from Eastern Europe, travels to Britain in hope of employment. He experiences homelessness, a mugging, unemployment, exploitation, but also kindness and generosity. He works delivering leaflets, washing up and preparing vegetables in a restaurant, and asparagus picking in Suffolk. He misses his dead wife and the daughter he had to leave at home, he falls in love and is betrayed, he gets a promotion and the sack, and he encounters classical music and modern theatre in equally horrendous experiences.
Tremain is on the top of her form. The characters are perfect and the shambling 'two steps forward, one step back' progress of Lev is a masterpiece of plotting. It seems that his life is a muddle but Tremain juxtaposes triumph and disaster perfectly to keep the story moving. Anne Tyler's A Patchwork Planet put triumph and disaster in adjacent sentences; Tremain doesn't quite achieve this extreme but the disaster at the end of chapter 17 becomes hope within ten pages of chapter 18.
The characters each play an important part in this rags to riches story. The mythic Rudi, left at home, is a siren call of the unquenched spirit; Sophie is a siren of another kind, using sex to lure Lev onto a rock on which he is very nearly wrecked; Lydia, the coach companion, whose own odyssey is equally difficult as Lev's, can be relied upon to provide great advice; Christy, the drunken Irish landlord, is the man whom Lev redeems. This novel has been carefully constructed and yet each character has utterly real strengths and weaknesses which make them genuinely three-dimensional. Every story that Tremain tells in this book is told with honesty and empathy.
This book includes many great moments. Here are a few:
- "His mother appeared ghostly, as though, in the race through life, she was an entrant nobody had seen and who crept in last, always last, with worry in her eyes." (C 3)
- "Twenty-first-century man is a dog, he thought, a vile, raunchy dog, with its teeth bared and its cock purple and hard and strands of stinking drool falling from its greedy mouth." (C 4)
- "Christmas. Lev saw how it advertised itself on every street and seemed to preoccupy every mind. He saw its daze and worry everywhere in people's eyes ... a coming ordeal - an armada of sufferings." (C 9)
- "love-making like theirs was a war - with two winning sides." (C 12)
- "a bureaucracy in which lying was still the chosen means of communication." (C 12)
- "this was not mere innocent chatter that thrummed and trilled round him, carelessly thrown out; it was a studiously composed symphony of talk, a performance of conversation, which presupposed some silent, admiring audience, mute in the shadows." (C 14)
- "Your menu for Wednesday. Wickedly lovely free-range chicken breasts ... Chef's fantastic fish gratin with zero bones and non-crap crumb ... Creme brulee jacked by Chef from a recipe at GK Ashe." (C 22)
January 2020; 365 pages
Books by Tremain reviewed in this blog include:
- The Road Home: the story of Lev, an eastern European immigrant in Britain.
- Music and Silence: a historical novel set in Denmark
- Restoration and its sequel Merivel: historical novels set in the court of Charles II
- The Gustav Sonata: the rather sad life of a Swiss hotelier