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Originally published Friday, August 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"The Road Home": Getting by with a little help from his friends

Rose Tremain's Orange Prize-winning novel "The Road Home" follows the story of Lev, an Eastern European migrant on a quest for a new life in today's England who is shored up by the aid and comfort of three memorable friends.

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Road Home"

by Rose Tremain

Little, Brown, 432 pp., $24.99

Having previously been shortlisted for both the Booker Prize ("Restoration," 1999) and an earlier Orange Prize ("The Coulour," 2004), Rose Tremain has hit pay dirt with her 10th novel, "The Road Home," winner of this year's Orange Prize. Judges found this exhilarating comic tale of an Eastern European emigrant newly arrived in London "very warm and empathetic."

"The Road Home" is an engaging study of 42-year-old Lev, a recent widower from the small town of Auror in an unnamed country where he worked at the now-defunct sawmill. He leaves his 5-year-old daughter and his mother to find a prosperous life in England, not as an "asylum seeker" but as a "legal, economic migrant."

Tremain populates the novel with three key characters who function as Lev's support system — Rudi, a childhood friend who remains in their hometown driving an unreliable Tchevi as the village's only available taxi; Lydia, a friendly soul who shares her hard-boiled eggs, dried fruit and pieces of chocolate with Lev on the bus taking them across Europe; and Christy, a feisty Irish landlord and sometime plumber.

Lev quickly discovers that his expectations exceed the realities of the city. Based on Rudi's advice, he assumes 20 pounds will get him through a week. Instead, that barely covers the cost of one night at a B&B. He spends some nights homeless before he gets a job delivering fliers door to door for Ahmed's Kabobs, earning small change for each leaflet.

Lydia resurfaces and is instrumental in getting him a dishwasher's job in a top-notch restaurant, which inspires a "Great Idea" and new goal for the rest of the novel.

Along the way there are a number of telling humorous incidents — a miracle of poinsettias, an annoying cellphone at a symphony concert, an art installation that skewers postmodern exhibitions and their clientele.

"The Road Home" could have been a cheerless, dreary tale of isolation and loneliness. Instead, Tremain transforms this episodic road story into a gem of a novel, driven by a memorable character whose caring and ambition move him from a difficult personal situation and damaging historical past toward a positive new life.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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