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Author: Marina Lewycka
Publication date: 2005
Publisher: Penguin Books
* 'When we first came here, Vera, people could have said the same things about us - that we were ripping off the country, gorging ourselves on free orange juice, growing fat on NHS cod-liver oil. But they didn't. Everybody was kind to us.'*
'Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamourous 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.'
Sisters Vera and Nadezhda must put aside a lifetime of feuding to save their émigré engineer father from voluptuous gold-digger Valentina. With her proclivity for green satin underwear and boil-in-bag cuisine, she will stop at nothing in the pursuit of Western wealth.
But the sisters' campaign to oust Valentina unearths family secrets, uncovers fifty years of Europe's darkest history and sends them back to roots they'd much rather forget...
You should never buy a book because of its title alone, but when I saw A short history of tractors in Ukrainian, I could not help it. The cover, in its old fashion style, attracted me, as well as all the reviews telling how hilarious it was. I was expecting a funny story, with lively characters and a farming Ukrainian background… and I must admit I am rather disappointed, as it is not exactly what I found in it.
When Valentina, an eccentric Ukrainian woman comes to the UK and marries Nadezhda’s father, she is forced to cooperate with her older sister Vera in order to protect him from his new wife’s greed. She nearly forty years younger than their father and they soon realise that she is abusing him, but by helping them, the two sisters must rethink their relationships and the family secrets.
Such a summary seemed very promising to me, but as I started the book, I did not enjoy it as much as I had expected. I found the story itself quite interesting, but I did not grow attached to the characters. It is told in the first person by Nadezhda, who explains to us what happens – and sometimes also what her father tells her on the phone. As she plays an active role in the plot, it is a rather good choice because she meets everybody the reader needs to know for the story. Yet, in my opinion, her character is not developed enough. We do not know much about her private life (apart from her relationship to her father, her sister and her past) or her relationship to her daughter and husband. It seemed to me that she lives in the past or in order to defend her father from Valentina, and that, apart from that, her personality was nearly inexistent. At the same time, I had the feeling that she was not the only narrator, as we sometimes have information about the characters opinions and thoughts she could not possibly know about.
The readers do not learn to know other characters that much either. Valentina is a caricature, which gives her little credibility although she is sometimes rather funny. Vera is even more transparent in her personality than her sister and their hate-to-love relationship seems surreal. Their father, however, is moving, with his eccentric Big Ideas and his innocent kindness.
If you have read my review so far, you are probably wondering about the title. To be honest, I was as well at the beginning of the book… and I am still a little at the end. Let me explain why: Nadezhda’s father is writing a book about the history of tractors, which were extremely important in Ukraine. So, as we read, we are given extracts of his historic writing, which I found extremely interesting (after all, I was a Young Farmer when I lived in the English countryside). The problem with these episodes is that they were not that easy to follow, given how many little events happen between each of them. Moreover, until the very end of the book, I found them interesting but irrelevant to the rest of the story. Luckily, the author gives a conclusion that lived up to my expectations.
In parallel with this story and the account of the present, we are given information about Ukrainian history – and more broadly, Europe history during the war – and the past of Nadezhda’s family. I found the historical passages interesting, although it was sometimes difficult to understand them as I did not have a very good background in history of communism, Russia and Eastern Europe. The fact that they alternated with the present and the tractors history did probably not help either. I enjoyed reading about the family’s past, especially when several points of view were given. I found them moving and I think it would have been worth giving more details about how life was in the 1930s in Ukraine.
What annoyed me was the writing style, which is probably supposed to add to the comic effect of the story. I think the author tried to illustrate the difficulties encountered by the characters because of the language barrier, for example by sometimes omitting the articles and using incorrect grammar. However, I found it exaggerated: I did not mind this strange syntax in the dialogues – on the contrary, I felt it lead us successfully in the characters’ world – but it hindered my reading in the narrative parts (especially when we have the feeling that the story is told by an external narrator). Even worse were the – many – comments in brackets telling us how the words were pronounced or adding information that was of little use.
A short history of tractors in Ukrainian was a good distraction for me, but I had expected more of this book. I liked the idea of the story and some passages were quite emotional or funny – unfortunately, there were not enough of them. There were also interesting comparisons between life in the East and in the West and considerations about society in our current world. I was surprised because I did not expect such serious issues in a comic book, but the vision given by Marina Lewycka captivated me. I think the organisation was not optimal, as three different parts are mixed together and it is sometimes difficult to remember and understand what happened before and why this precise event is told. I cannot say I hated it, I cannot say I loved it either. I am divided. If you are interested in Russian / Ukrainian history and tractors and that you like light reads, you will probably enjoy it. Keep in mind that if you are looking for an extremely funny story, you might be a little disappointed.
Thanks to Mum for lending me this book.