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Ukraine and tractors
by Asa Butcher
Issue 15
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A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian: A Novel
Marina Lewycka
Penguin Press HC, 2005
Yes, the title is one of the strangest you are ever likely to see and the cover does little to help matters, but the debut novel of Marina Lewycka has slowly gained the popularity it deserves via word-of-mouth.

The first comment I must make about the book is about the quotes littered over the front and back cover: 'Extremely funny', 'Mad and hilarious', 'A comic feast', well, I am now standing on my chair screaming, "NO, IT WAS NOT!" The book was a joy to read once I had realised that it was not any of these things and, in my humble opinion, these quotes harmed the book. It had some moments that made me smile, but nothing made me laugh aloud or want to narrate to my wife.

You have expectations when you pick up a book believing it to be 'uproariously funny'; your brain anticipates the comedy, it craves the humour, but the plot of an old man being abused by a foreign gold digger does not tickle my funny bone.

The story is told through the eyes of Nadezhda, the younger daughter of a widowed elderly Ukrainian man living in England who decides to marry a 36-year-old glamorous blond Ukrainian divorcee. Despite their personal feelings for one another, the old man's two daughters unite to battle the gold digger who is physically and emotionally damaging their father. In the process, we learn about Ukraine's turbulent history entwined with the family's own mysterious past.

At many times throughout the story I felt as though this was a book for the female reader, although I can't quite explain why. There are a few moments, such as the restoration of the Rolls Royce by four of the male characters, which hooked me back in again, but overall there just weren't enough. It may have been due to the two daughters running the show and being protective of their father, while Mike, Nadezhda's husband, gets told off for saying things like, "Your Dad is just hoping to fulfil every man's dream - to lie in the arms of a beautiful younger woman.'

Mike was my favourite character, especially when he accompanies his wife on visits to her father. He always sits listening to his father-in-law talking about Ukraine, tractors and history, but once he has had one glass of the potent plum wine he tunes out and begins nodding - something that many husbands have experienced.

Once I had overcome the disappointment of the book's genre, it was a tenderly written story, with the occasionally blast of pathos for even the gold digger. Thankfully, the book didn't go too far into Daily Mail 'send 'em all home' territory, but there were a few strange moments concerning illegal immigrants, the Home Office and the Immigration Service.

There is a strong autobiographically feeling when you read the book and, when you read the 'Notes about the Author', it becomes apparent. Marina Lewycka was born in a refugee camp in Germany during World War II and her family moved to England after the war. It feels as though she has drawn upon many of her personal experiences while writing this book and it has done her well - winning the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize at the Hay literary festival and nominated for the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction.

Try the book, if only for the looks of other people when they notice the title of the book you are reading.

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Colm2007-12-17 01:24:07
What are you talking about? Everyone I have spoken to who read this thought it was hilarious. It cracked me up.

Asa2007-12-17 08:42:45
Nope. I stand by my review. I didn't find it funny at all.

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