We know the pressures the steady flow of immigrants has caused in our society though we hear less about the benefits of having them here; nor do we have much idea what they think about us. Lev, the Polish migrant in Rose Tremain’s new book, expected to find men who looked like Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai but found they were slovenly geezers with shaven heads and garish tattoos and not so different from those he worked alongside in the sawmills back home before losing his job. The early death of his wife, his responsibility for his adored small daughter and his ageing mother, the need of money in a decaying village persuade Lev to leave for London. Surely the streets there must still be paved with some gold, though at 42 it’s a little late to start looking. Fortunately he’s a dreamer with a will of iron and the luck of the devil, as well as being strikingly handsome — as Lydia, the woman ‘with the mud-splash of moles’ across her face, sitting beside him on the bus, is quick to spot. She is a translator and teaches him a little English on the bus and gives him her address in London.
Lev sleeps rough, distributes leaflets for a restaurant and finally has to ring Lydia. She scans the ‘Wanted’ columns for him despite his refusal to make love. He finds a job washing up in a restaurant under a famous chef, G. K. Ashe, who wants his pans clean enough to drink cocktails from. He finds a room with Christy, a kindly drunk who hates celebrities: ‘If you can’t get your ball at the back of the net you’re no one.’ Lev is rapidly promoted. He’s destined to become an exceptional chef. Money flows back to Poland. Nothing but success lies ahead. Only the longing for his daughter keeps him awake at nights. Why does he ruin it?
Sophie, a trendy slapper in the kitchen with a tattoo of a lizard on her arm, takes him to a play at the Royal Court in which a man lusts after his nine-year-old daughter. Lev sweats. In the final scene the man brings out a life-sized doll with the unmistakable face of his daughter and, baring his arse, mimes fucking her as the curtain falls. Sophie takes Lev in shock to some friends and he hears them describe the play as being ‘right on the button. Bet half the fuckers in Chelsea are screwing their kids senseless.’ Sophie enthusiastically agrees and Lev goes beserk and starts choking her, shouting, ‘You know nothing. Only this small England. You know nothing, nothing.’ He’s chucked out, gets drunk, is arrested and given the sack by G. K. Ashe.
Tremain has reached a turning point. What is she to do with Lev? The scene at the theatre alienates him profoundly. How can he stay in a country that applauds the humiliation of a girl the same age as his daughter? Or is Lev exaggerating, to give himself an excuse to return home? This dilemma is resolved when he hears that his village is to be destroyed in order to build a new dam. He has no choice but to return. He’s now an accomplished chef, so he can, and does, make money fast. He could, of course, send more money home and stay put but he chooses to pretend that he’s burnt his boats here. Besides, he’s hatched a new plan to make money back home that, he being Lev, sounds mad but is not. We know he will make it work.
Rose Tremain writes as effortlessly and rhythmically as she breathes, tackling the serious misery of a hidden homesickness with a light and humane touch but with a firm grasp of the day-to-day realities and a rare ability to enter into the complex emotional world of the stranger. She’s on Lev’s side. England has made him a chef, but when is gratitude ever enough to overcome the longing to go back to one’s own country? The Road Home is another notable achievement from this most thoughtful and readable novelist.