10 March 2009
Not quite a third of the way through, and it feels like an old-fashioned State of Britain novel. Tremain seems to have asked herself what it must be like to be one of the thousands of economic migrants who moved here during Britain’s prosperous decade – and then she’s set about answering her own question. She starts at the beginning – you know you’re in for a long haul when a novel begins as the main character sets off on a 54-hour bus journey – then takes us through Lev’s first few days in London, day by day.
We’ve had Lev sleeping rough, delivering leaflets for a pittance, being appalled at the cost of living. But this doesn’t last long, as though Tremain doesn’t want it too grim. So almost everybody he’s met has helped in some way: Lydia on the bus (and, crucially, in England), the Asian landlady of a B&B he stays at, Sophie at the restaurant. And there are people to engage with: not only Lydia and Sophie, but Lydia’s friends, Christie the landlord…. To be honest, it all seems too easy. Sure, he’s got a shitty washing-up job that pays the minimum wage. But Lev keeps getting tastes of middle-class England, with Lydia’s friends in Muswell Hill (paradise, as Lev calls it), the top-notch restaurant he works at, the Elgar concert. I’ve started to wonder whether this is a different sort of State of Britain novel. Lev’s an outsider, but what he’s looking in on is the comfortable world of the typical reader of a novel like this. I’m not very convinced so far.
Something else is going on. From the start, Tremain lets us inside Lev’s head. This allows his memories to fill in the back story: dead wife, beloved young daughter, hardworking mother, lively pal. And used-up resources, so there’s no longer any work in ’our country’. But the novel‘s title doesn‘t only refer to a literal journey, and Lev isn’t only an economic migrant. He‘s attempting – or not attempting – to come to terms with his wife‘s death. So, around Chapter 7, it isn’t surprising to find two women who are interested in re-igniting something in him. There‘s a credibility-stretching moment where one of them rings his mobile phone during the crucial moment of silence at the start of the concert he‘s gone to with the other. And guess what: it makes Lev feel even more of an outsider.
No, I’m not convinced.
First half of Chapter 8
Sophie’s taken Lev to the pub… to meet a woman who makes hats for princesses – little ‘ironic’ numbers that are this year’s must-have, apparently – and a playwright who’s taking British theatre into the toilet. It’s satire, stupid: hardworking, straightforward Lev, at sea with the ubersophisticated London set. He’s not in his country, Toto, but I’m not sure which country he is supposed to be in. Clearly, it isn’t a documentary of economic migration – Tremain moved away from that idea somewhere around Chapter 3 – it’s Gulliver’s Travels and we’re on the island of Laputa, where everybody’s a fool or a charlatan.
The middle third of the novel, and… it carries on being the sort of novel it started being once Lev stopped living rough. Sophie, a fairly lowly sous-chef, is friends not only with the most fashionable hat-maker and playwright in London. There’s Harry Preece as well, a thinly-disguised Damian Hirst. This woman knows everybody – as though Tremain is forcing us to recognise that this isn’t supposed to be realism, it’s a parable or fable. Lev is lost, but he tries to be good despite the absurd, posturing London that Tremain has dropped him into doing its best to derail him. The culmination of this arrives at in the premiere of the idiot playwright’s play. Tremain describes the first act, and it’s a travesty of early 21st Century pseudery: near-pornography masquerading as a critique of bourgeois mores. The audience loves it, obviously, but we’re supposed to be with Lev in the disgust he feels….
Later, when he does grudgingly admit to seeing something of value in one of Preece’s constructions, it sounds like Tremain imitating the way most people usually do admit to seeing something in some of Damien Hirst’s work. And for me this is the problem: a lot of the novel is real enough for it to appear that Tremain is looking for a take on the real, non-fictional world. Lev’s London is a bit like ours, and plenty of reviewers have applauded this. But it’s difficult to have a plausible reality and a fable going on at the same time when incredibly schematic-feeling coincidences happen. For instance when, on the day he loses his job (tell you later), Lev gets a phone call about farm work from the only countryman he’s met in England, it just feels ridiculous. I suppose this is to push forward the Everyman tale, but, well, can’t Tremain try to make it just a bit more plausible?
Anyway. Lev’s seen part of the ridiculous play and now Tremain decides to make something novelistic happen. Ok, she’s created a simple, honest outsider observing British culture and finding it wanting in almost every way – but this rather obvious cultural commentary isn’t the main point of the novel. So she turns to the other narrative she’s got going on: Lev’s emotional journey. The cultural shambles of the play’s first act leads to an emotional response that can only be described as severe – and the crisis kicks the novel into a new shape. But… before that, what about the plot up to then?
In the middle chapters Lev and Sophie become lovers. She’s as good a person as Lev in her own way, volunteering at an old people’s home every Sunday. (No, I didn’t believe it either.) They have good sex – but Lev wants more from it than Sophie does: she never sees it as anything more than a good time, whereas Lev is looking for someone to fill the gap left by the death of his wonderful wife. (I kept thinking, When is he going to realise that Lydia, not very pretty Lydia, is the one for him? But she’s got bored waiting and has gone off to be the mistress of the maestro she improbably works for. Mind you he’s old, so she could be back.) And Lev discovers he loves cooking. He’s not just a washer-up any more, but a preparer of the veg. And… he gets closer to Christie, his landlord, who is Irish and therefore has a drink problem. Christie’s ex-wife does a turn for us, and we see what a cow she is – but at last the planned trip to the seaside with the daughter takes place. The trip is good – but it’s with somebody else’s daughter and it’s not the same for Lev….
The most convincing conversation of the novel for me is the telephone call he makes at Christmas. His mother screws up the guilt until Lev can hardly speak: when will he come back, doesn’t he miss his daughter…? But, basically, Lev can’t be content with Sophie and the surrogate family – at one step removed – represented by Christie’s daughter. However. It’s hard to believe the eruption that begins in the play’s interval – and ends with Lev losing more or less all he’s got in London. We’ve already seen his jealousy of Sophie’s flirtatious behaviour, and we’ve been a bit disappointed by it. At the bar in the theatre he almost strangles her – until Henry Preece pulls him off her. So Lev goes, gets drunk, loses his wallet, causes a breach of the peace, gets arrested and fined, borrows from Lydia (just in time: she leaves next day) and forgets to set an alarm for going to work. So he loses his job, and he loses Sophie. For all this to work we have to believe in Lev’s rage, and we have to believe that his boss, despite liking Lev and his attitude to work, would sack him for the ‘mess’ of his carry-on with Sophie. Nah. Too schematic. I don’t actually know what’s going to happen following the phone-call about working on a farm, but it sounds as if the next segment might be set in Suffolk.
One more thing. At the end of Chapter 16 Sophie, who hasn’t spoken to Lev since the play, comes over to tell Lev she’s mad about Henry Preece. She wants a Let’s be friends conversation – but Lev ends up practically raping her. Except she’s a 21st Century sophisticate and has always enjoyed a bit of rough. But..,. that’s the end of that as far as Sophie‘s concerned. I didn’t believe this scene any more than I believed Lev’s night of madness after the play. It feels like a convenient tying-up of a loose thread, something that needs to be done to clean the blackboard before the novel’s next segment. And it makes me even more sure that there’s something essentially conservative about Tremain. Sophie‘s sexuality treads on the toes of middle England, the same target group Tremain is aiming to please as she knocks down one cultural Aunt Sally after another.
And shit, even the narrative‘s conservative: an absolutely straight chronological treatment, with flashbacks and phone calls home conveniently arranged to make the story a bit more interesting. (So far, the story is: man emigrates, man gets job, pal and girlfriend, man gets pissed and loses them.) Tremain is trying to make Lev’s interior journey interesting, but she’s made it hard for herself. He’s grieving, we know, but he’s not well endowed with a big helping of emotional intelligence. He’s learning, obviously: that’s the road Tremain is making him travel. But watching him make one mistake after another isn’t exactly riveting.
To the end: Chapters 17-24
I was hoping for more plausibility. Well, as Tremain has semaphored for us, the next segment begins down on the farm and we get some of the experiences of migrant Eastern Europeans we all know about: shitty work, shitty caravan, lumpen farmer. But, as in the earliest chapters of the book, Tremain doesn’t let it stay grim for long. The Chinese blokes in his caravan are endlessly cheerful and kind, the farmer turns out to have a heart… and Lev packs it up anyway after a couple of chapters because he’s had a Big Idea and he needs to get back to London. Where everything is just hunky-dory: Christie’s seeing the Indian woman he fancies, Lev gets a job as a waiter in a different restaurant, and Lev’s old boss is incredibly helpful about turning Lev’s plan into a reality.
Because, reader, to go with the instinctive flair for cookery this former beetroot-eater has discovered in himself, Lev’s also discovered Capitalism. His dream is of opening a restaurant in the city near his old village. All he needs, his old boss calculates, is ten grand. What he has is forty quid. Oh dear. He might as well hit the vodka bottle like his pal back in the old country, because whatever the dreams of avarice might be, ten grand is beyond them.
Except… After a few months he’s earned himself £12,000, and I started to wonder whether this really is some sort of Protestant Christian parable about the rewards earned by hard work and kindness. Good Samaritans, like Christie and Lev himself, get what they deserve – in Lev’s case, a job as chef in the old people’s home (remember that?) and promotion to a chef’s job in the kitchen of the restaurant he’s now working at. And it’s not only money he’s getting, obviously: he’s getting the sort of experience you’d never be able to buy. Ok, he’s working 18-hour days, but isn’t that always what incipient capitalists do in the early days? And, oh yeh: £3,000 of the miraculous total he takes back home comes from an old woman he was always kind to. Plausibility rating: in the minus figures.
In the meantime one thread of the novel has become a hymn to the healing power of catering: the old people in the home in London loved both him and the restorative food he cooks for them. And with the money it’s earned him – and continues to earn him, with bookings two and three weeks ahead – he’s able to nurse back to spiritual health all those saddoes he left behind. By the end, in one respect, it’s become a Victorian novel: materially, he’s got everything he dreamed of. He’s his town’s Jamie Oliver, the people he knows have jobs with him, and there’s a new woman in his life. (I was wrong about Lydia: his cack-handed request for a loan from the maestro via an embarrassing phone call to her is the end of that story….)
Happy ending, yes? Well, no, because there’s the other thread: Lev’s emotional journey. Not nearly as smooth, this one. Ok, he knows he needs to stop looking back – decides at the last moment against naming his restaurant after his dead wife – but he can’t quite move on. His mother never really forgives him for having gone away, his daughter, crucial to Lev‘s plans for returning home, is hardly mentioned in the final chapters. He breaks off his affair with the new woman when she starts talking about having kids, finds it almost impossible to visit the reservoir covering his old village (the one behind the dam I forgot to mention, the one providing the hydro-electricity to power the town, now booming in the brave new world of pre-meltdown Western-style prosperity).
But then he does visit, with Christie and the Indian woman who is now is wife. The ending is ambivalent. The village – called Aurore if my hearing is correct, as in Dawn – is under hundreds of feet of water. Christie says tells Lev it’s like Ireland – and I honestly don’t know what we’re supposed to make of this: ‘something wild, and beautiful, and full of woe.’ Some road home that turned out to be.