Sunday 31 January 2010

Book Review: Marina Lewycka - A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

I kept seeing this book in the best-sellers section of my local W H Smiths and thinking what a curious title and assuming it had to be some kind of red herring. I ended up with the book in my winter reading stash and eventually decided to make a start on it.

The book is about Nadia and Vera, two estranged middle-aged sisters in England whose parents are Ukrainian’s who immigrated to Britain at the end of World War Two. When their loving, frugal, green-fingered mother dies, the sisters feel protective towards their elderly father Nikolai, a former engineer who has become quite eccentric in their old age. This is until he informs Nadia that he is marrying Valentina, a voluptuous gold-digger, because he wants to help her gain permanent stay in the country.

He insists he is only helping her, Valentina insists that she loves him, Vera insists that their inheritance must be protected and Nadia finds herself trying to keep the peace. Before long the sisters realise they must out aside their differences if they are to deal with Valentina and convince their father that he is making a mistake. He in contrast, caught between the women, decides to write a short history of tractors, which really serves as a potted history of Ukraine. In turn, as the sisters begin to reach out to each other, they find themselves picking over the skeletons in the family’s closet.

This book is a curious insight into what it means to be an immigrant. When you usually think of refugees you think of someone from the wider world, but not someone from Europe. I have certainly never thought about the Ukrainian community in Britain. This book describes some of the issues that immigrants from Europe have faced in the past and some of they are required to deal with today.

This book is not laugh-out-loud funny, but it did keep me smiling, in particular Valentina’s battering of the English language and her demands. Nadia’s description of her mother is moving and the way her parents life under Stalin affected the way they lived the rest of their life interesting to read (their frugality, their fear of the police, their hoarding of food).

This was an easy, engaging read, although slow in parts and predictable in others.

1 comment:

  1. barakahlife31 January, 2010

    Nice review, it makes me want to read it. Thanks.