Saturday, 31 October 2009

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Marina Lewycka)

--The blurb--
"Two years after his wife dies, Nikolai, a Ukrainian who migrated to London after the Second World War, meets and falls for Valentina, a fellow Ukrainian who is nearly 50 years his junior. His daughters, Vera and Nadia, who have had a poor relationship with each other since their mother died, suspect Valentina of being after Nikolai’s money and of wanting a way to ensure that she and her son can remain in the West. Valentina is brash and manipulative, but she unites the previously feuding Vera and Nadia in their desire to have her removed back home. As a result of their renewed contact with each other, Nadia learns of family secrets."

--The review--
In setting us up with an outwardly classic scenario (old man falls for bimbo barely half his age), one could be forgiven for thinking that this might be a predictable or boring read. However, even from the unconventional title itself, Lewycka immediately shows us that this is not the case at all, and from the novel's first moments, the traditional Ukraine collides with modern-day Britain with a crash.

None of the characters are painted as angels; they all have their very realistic faults. While Vera and Nadia come across as being fairly normal, they are contrasted by the extreme caricatures in the forms of Valentina and their father. This is realistic and well-sustained as well as being imbued with pathos when appropriate; and, despite the fact that all characters come from the same foreign country, and despite the fact of Valentina and Nikolai likely having the same level of English, and Vera and Nadia sharing a similar level too, the dialogue never becomes two-dimensional, with Lewycka managing to maintain distinct personalities and unwavering mastery of dialect. The novel is very sensory and visual as a result, thanks to this successful development of character as the foreground to the often murky physical settings.

Equally, pace and humour play their part, and it becomes easy to see how this novel propelled Marina Lewycka to seemingly overnight acclaim. The reader becomes tranfixed by the text, wanting to see the novel through to its (highly fitting) end. While the ways in which Lewycka transforms the basic situation make it unique, it still remains grounded enough for readers to see places, circumstances, and even people that they know in the novel's web. Even though extracts from Nikolai's book (from which the title comes) can drag a bit, and seem dry in comparison to the rest of the novel, one suspects that this was exactly Lewycka's intention. The result is a compelling, amusing read that should hook even the most cynical onto the author's work; I certainly look forward to dipping my toe into more.

Other works by Marina Lewycka
Two Caravans (2007)
We Are All Made of Glue (2009)

No comments: