When home has no hope

Stacey D'Erasmo's third novel, "The Sky Below," will be published in January. She teaches writing at Columbia University.

WE LIVE in a world of exiles and displaced people; they pass among us every day, much remarked upon but not quite truly seen. Displaced by war, political upheaval, genocide, poverty and environmental disaster, modern exiles occupy a peculiar spot in the collective consciousness, and their burden can be strange. If you have been forced to leave New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina and have set up a life elsewhere, how might you explain the alienation you feel in Houston, or Atlanta, or Portland, Ore., cities in your own country? If you’re a Turk working in Germany or Holland and sending money home to your family, how might you articulate the continual sense of being neither here nor there, and yet in both places at once?

Indeed, the state of modern exile is frequently characterized not by burnt earth and the impossibility of going home, but by a perpetual border crossing, an uneasy doubleness. You can go back -- sort of, sometimes, partially -- but you can’t necessarily stay. The work, or the food, or the non-radioactive terrain is in the other place that does and doesn’t feel like home. I often wonder why more contemporary literature doesn’t address this complicated and consequential situation, not only because it is politically relevant, but also because it is dramatically so rich, so vexed and vexing, so ambiguous.

Rose Tremain, the author of nine novels and four books of short stories, is a past master of otherness, phenomenally adept at slipping into skins very different from her own. She has written about 19th century prospectors (“The Colour”), a 13-year-old boy (“The Way I Found Her”) and a transgender heroine in 1950s Britain (“Sacred Country”), to name just a few. In “The Road Home” -- winner of the 2008 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction -- she proves herself again magically capable of animating a character from the inside out, illuminating the heart of one modern exile with an extraordinary degree of love, imagination and insight. The pleasure, the wit and the joy in humanity that Tremain brings to every page do what literature, at its best, should do: connect us, as E.M. Forster famously exhorted. Particularly, connect us to the invisible, the lonely, the barely seen.

Here, our perpetually homesick hero is 43-year-old Lev, who leaves his unnamed Eastern European country after the death of his wife. His work at a sawmill in his hometown of Baryn has ended because there are no more trees. With a small child and an elderly mother to support, he goes to London to find work, joining the throng of Eastern European immigrants semi-marooned in England because of overwhelming economic, environmental and political forces. In London, Lev tumbles from one menial, unstable situation to the next, an Alice in a rough Wonderland that is as confusing in its gifts as in its hardships. Its effect on him is alchemical. When, at one point in the novel, he returns to visit Baryn, he finds that he and it have changed irrevocably, unexpectedly. As always in Tremain’s subtle, empathic writing, loss is inextricably bound up with surprising gains.


Beautifully, sharply, Tremain deploys Lev as a double mirror, simultaneously reflecting his constantly astonished interior and the sometimes brutal contradictions of contemporary Britain, where globalization and late capitalism have brought a confusing mix of opportunity and despair. “The Road Home” is, in some respects, a historical novel of the present moment. From Lev’s perspective, the modern United Kingdom is as strange as 16th century France. Looking at the crowds on the street in London, he notices that “many of them sucked cans of cola as they walked, like anxious babies, and Lev thought that something catastrophic had happened to them -- something nobody mentioned but which was there in their faces and in the clumsy, slouching way they moved.”

If Lev is Alice, he is also, like many of Tremain’s more tender heroes and heroines, Candide, trying to make his way through a world that doesn’t make sense to him because it is absurd, incommensurate and impossible. His mother weeps to him, over the cellphone, that England is “a terrible place. Violence. Drunkenness. Drugs. Everybody too fat. You were better off here.” One is hard-pressed to disagree -- except for the lack of jobs in Baryn, and the radioactive lake. Which is worse, asks Tremain: starvation and humiliation in a bloated First World capital or catching and eating fish in your hometown that glow in the dark? Via Lev’s moving, intrepid character, the answer is both, neither and what’s the alternative?

How Lev learns to fold together his past and present selves, his past and present countries, is the deep adventure of “The Road Home,” which never falters in its detailed exploration of the sort of man who is most often represented by a statistic on global “problems.” From Tremain’s capacious perspective, loneliness is the country we all inhabit, and its language is universal. Standing in the ruins of Lev’s old country, one British character remarks, “There’s something about it reminds me of Ireland. . . . Something wild and beautiful and full of woe.” Through this shared experience of loss, Tremain suggests, we can’t necessarily solve the world’s problems, but we can find one another -- human, bereft, alive.