Friday, October 10, 2008
By Rose Tremain
Sometimes I read a book that has won a prestigious award and I come away wondering why it won, or I may understand why, but award or no, I just didn't like the book. Not so with The Road Home. It is completely deserving of the Orange Prize and I loved every page of it.
Rose Tremain has given us a poignant, perfectly crafted novel. It is beautifully written. The plot ambles along at a relaxed and steady pace, but never once did I lose interest. I attribute this to two things. First, the compelling characters and Tremain's ability to draw the reader in, to make us emotionally invested in what happens to these rather ordinary people.
Lev ... I really liked this guy. And by the book's end, I knew him so well. Lev's journey to London and the life he lived there made the immigrant experience so real. The competing cacophony of emotions: he was hopeful, overwhelmed, frustrated, angry, sad, at one point blissfully in love. He felt he was betraying those he left behind just by being in London, even though he was there to make life better for them; if he enjoyed life in his temporary city, he felt guilty. I felt Lev's frustration with the language barrier. Reading about how he was treated as somehow inferior just because he dressed differently, had different mannerisms, struggled to understand and make himself understood made my heart break with sympathy.
There were other characters who I grew to care about, and surprisingly most were men. I sometimes find it difficult to warm to adult male characters. But in this case, I quickly came to adore Rudi, Lev's brash and reckless, yet big-hearted old friend and Christy Slane, Lev's sweet, easygoing, down on his luck London flatmate.
The second thing that stands out about this novel are the descriptions of the two central places: London and the unnamed Eastern European country Lev comes from. The richly textured images Tremain so masterfully creates stand alone, but are especially meaningful when viewed in contrast. Lev's home country, struggling to feel hopeful after the fall of communism seemed bleak, faded, gray, sadly downtrodden. London, a frenzied melting pot, at times glamorous and sophisticated, at others gritty and ordinary, but always colorful and alive.
The characters and images in this highly readable, exquisitely written book will remain with me long after I turned the last page.
Note: This review originally posted at my book blog, Literarily.
Thursday, October 9, 2008
- 2007 - A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo (completed 8/10/08 - review)
- 2004 - Small Island, by Andrea Levy - WINNER (completed 5/24/08 - review)
- 2004 - Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (completed 9/10/08 - review)
- 2002 - Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters (completed 12/26/08 - review)
- 2001 - The Idea of Perfection, by Kate Grenville - WINNER (completed 10/8/08 - review)
Complete List of Orange Prize Fiction Winners & Shortlists Read (with links to reviews where available):
Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - WINNER (review)
The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai (review)
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo (review)
On Beauty, by Zadie Smith - WINNER
The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss
We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver - WINNER (review)
Old Filth, by Jane Gardam (review)
Small Island, by Andrea Levy - WINNER (review)
Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (review)
Unless, by Carol Shields
Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett- WINNER
Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters (review)
The Idea of Perfection, by Kate Grenville - WINNER (review)
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood
White Teeth, by Zadie Smith
The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
Paradise, by Toni Morrison
The Weight of Water, by Anita Shreve
The Hundred Secret Senses, by Amy Tan
Ladder of Years, by Anne Tyler
The Idea of Perfection takes place in the Australian town of Karakarook, NSW, population 1374. Harley Savage, a middle-aged textile artist, travels from Sydney to create a heritage museum. Douglas Cheeseman, an engineer, is sent to demolish an old bridge. From this initial setup I expected intense conflict and community uprising, but that turned out to be secondary to the story of human foibles and relationships. Both Douglas and Harley are unmarried; he is divorced and she is a widow. Both are lonely, but they resist forming relationships with others. Douglas remains on the fringe of the local work crew. Harley feels awkward with others, and stubbornly resists a stray dog's repeated attentions. Both draw gradually to one another.
In fact, the entire book moves in a very gradual manner. Grenville oh-so-slowly reveals details that build a complete picture of the main characters and the town's citizens. At the beginning of the book, Douglas is looking out of an upstairs hotel room window. Only later, after learning he suffers from vertigo, does it become clear that just looking out the window was an accomplishment. Details of Harley's childhood and married life are droppped like a trail of breadcrumbs. Slowly the reader sees these two, their physical imperfections, and their inherent inner goodness. In contrast, Grenville introduces local housewife Felicity Porcelline, who is portrayed -- again, gradually -- as someone obsessed with her appearance, the cleanliness of her home, and her son's academic performance. She appears perfect on the outside, but inside she leads a self-centered, deceptive life.
This book had a surprisingly strong impact on me. I loved the slow reveal of the characters, and their ultimate depth. And while the book moved quickly, Grenville suggests plot in the same way she does her characters. There were many times in this novel where she made a subtle point that connected several other events in a way that literally left me wide-eyed, astonished, and saying "OH ... !!" out loud. The Idea of Perfection is sure to be one of my top reads of 2008. ( )