A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian
A novel by Marina Lewycka
"Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcee. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside."
As opening paragraphs go, it's a winner. And if you're looking for a read that's high on zip and zaniness, the good news is that the momentum is maintained from start to finish. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is an incredibly alive book, peppered with potty characters and sparkling prose. But it's much more than just a fruity page-turner. Although the book has frequently been flogged as a top holiday read and been showered with praise for its comic qualities, there's more depth to the novel than at first meets the eye. It's easy to be misled by all the 'laugh out loud' hype on the dust-jacket, but it's perhaps more rewarding to read the book on its own terms and not as the much touted comic blockbuster.
Above: A vintage Rolls - one of several non-speaking parts in 'A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian'
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is indeed a deftly constructed book, all the more so as this is Marina Lewycka's debut in print. She knows how to keep her audience guessing, even though the cliff-hangers are never overblown. As in Spielberg's Jaws, where the meddlesome shark is barely revealed until well into the movie, there's a calculated build up to when Valentina - the blonde Ukrainian bombshell - steps onto the stage. We're constantly hearing about the havoc she's wreaking, but it's not until 80 pages in that she appears in the flesh, complete with ''ferocious breasts bursting like twin warheads out of an underwired, ribbon-strapped, lace-trimmed green satin rocket-launcher of a bra."
There's much to relish in the comic absurdities of a doddery yet stubborn old man under the spell of a brazen hussey. But as already mentioned, scratch the surface and there's a much sadder portrait here than the blurbs indicate. Marina Lewycka can capture the claustrophobia of a dysfunctional family painfully well, and the plights of several characters often totter on the brink of tragedy.
Maryna Lewycka is herself the daughter of Ukrainian refugees who took asylum in Northern England after World War II. She draws on this fascinating heritage to create an evocative portrait of a Ukrainian emigree family in the UK. Nevertheless, the characters who emerge from post-communist Ukraine are rather limited in type. (If you're travelling to Ukraine, there are other kinds of girls out there than the rumbustious Valentina...!)
But all in all this book wins with its generosity of spirit. Lewycka allows her offended narrator to be reasonably suggestive of the complexities of the scenario, and a wry air flows throughout. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is a tremendous tonic that's well worth trying.