Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Book Thoughts: "The Road Home" by Rose Tremain

This is the book I received for World Book Night 2013:

Sorry it's a bit blurry, it's the sort of problem that could be solved with just the amount of effort I'm not willing exert right now. Shame. You can see the important bits though, namely that the cover is a picture of a cover, with shadow effects and everything. I found this pretty amusing when it was first given to me by one of my creative writing professors in Scotland. As a result, it doesn't have any of the praise blurbs and such that appear on regular books. It does, however, have a poem on the inside of the back cover, which I greatly appreciated. My copy has "Song" by Christina Rossetti, which you can read by clicking here.

It took me a while to get to The Road Home because of a prejudice on my part. I opened it the day I got it, only to close it after reading the second sentence: "Lev wore a leather jacket and jeans and a leather cap pulled low over his eyes and his handsome face was grey-toned from his smoking and in his hands he clutched an old red cotton handkerchief and a dented pack of Russian cigarettes."

That sentence killed me. Not a comma to be had, and "and"s as far as the eye can see. There are several sentences like that in The Road Home and, maybe it's just me, but I find something juvenile about this sentence structure. It's also frustrating as a dyslexic, since I rely on punctuation to break sentences into easier to digest pieces. At the time I was looking for a quick read so The Road Home was set aside. It was only this past week, while attempting to organize my bookshelves, that I came across the book again and decided to give it another try.

The plot is fairly straightforward: Lev has recently emigrated from an unnamed Eastern European country to find work in London. He meets people in this unfamiliar city that help him find his way and, when tragedy strikes back home, he finds a way to combine what he's learned in his new life with what he loves about his old life to save the day. Not groundbreaking stuff. However, there are virtues. Tremain's descriptions, when they aren't "and"ing themselves to death, are so detailed and engrossing you can't help but find yourself knee-deep in Lev's world.

If that were all, I would have said this was an average story told in an above average way and moved on. However, that isn't all. More than once I read things in this otherwise average story that still make my skin crawl just thinking about them. Our main character nearly strangles his romantic interest at a party, and later forces himself on her in a child's bedroom. It's left intentionally unclear whether or not the act was consensual. He laments to his friend that he's pretty sure he raped this woman, but this is met with little more than an "oh, darn", and the book fully expects us to still be sympathetic to his character.

At another point we're introduced to two gay Chinese men, who are portrayed as incredibly feminine and childish. The childish part is what bothered me. They seduce Lev while he's drunk, insisting that they're providing a service, just helping him out, giving sexual favors to make Lev feel better. Their touch is described as "like a girls", and when Lev leaves them, he cuddles them "like children" and thanks them for their services. The whole thing just felt very predatory and creepy.

By the time the happy ending rolled around, I wasn't rooting for the main character anymore. It would be one thing if we were meant to feel conflicted by Lev's behavior, but the book makes it pretty clear that Lev is supposed to be the hero. Flawed, maybe, but in an "aren't we all" sort of way. Unfortunately, I lost all empathy the minute he described the woman he potentially assaulted as "his animal" with "irresistible greed for the male..."

It was hard not to put the book down for a second time, and truthfully, I wouldn't have been missing much if I had.

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