A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

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A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A good if undemanding read that tells a farcically funny but touching tale from the life of Ukrainian immigrant family in Britain. The roots of the story reach to the Revolution, the Ukrainian famine in the 30's and the WW2; the contemporary story moves swiftly and the tractors appear only infrequently as a historical metaphor. Borrow before buying as it might be just a one-time-read.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: March 2006
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 0141020520

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Nadia and Vera are middle-aged Ukrainian sisters living in Britain and everything - from personality to politics - seems to divide them. But now they have to join ranks as their elderly widowed father Nikolay falls prey to Valentina, a silicone-breasted, bottle-blonde gold digger back from the home country who arrives in the UK with her teenage son and a belief that an old age pension of an engineer will be able to support her taste for brown cookers and posh cars. Many a farcical event ensues and some poignantly moving ones too in a swiftly moving and often funny story.

But overall, 'Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian' is less wacky then the blurb on the cover would let you believe and it is, essentially, a simple family tale. The conflict between two sisters (very overt) and their difficult relationship with their slightly eccentric father (more implied, at least for Nadia who narrates the tale) create the main dynamic of the story. The reasons for the conflict lie in different personal history of the sisters, which was in turn shaped by the large and frightening History of Europe of the last 60 or so years. The arrival of Valentina the gold digger is only a useful tragi-farcical pretext; a storytelling trick, a focusing device that allows for the exposure of these family dynamics. Of course, the subject of immigration to the UK is always of some relevance and it was interesting for me to see an Eastern European angle on it. But at the end of the day, and despite her frenetic activity, it's not about Valentina, it's about Nikolay, Vera and Nadia; and their mother. And History.

Because this is what 'Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian' is also about: the little people who are, essentially, and despite all the scars they might be carrying, survivors of History. This is a theme big in Eastern/Middle European writing of last 60 or so years, and understandably so, as it would be hard to find a family in that part of the world not affected by the madness and cruelty of the last century: from the Great War, October Revolution, Civil War in the 20's, man-made Ukrainian famine of the 30's in which millions perished, Stalin's purges, WW2 and German labour camps. All these leave a mark on the Mayevsky family as they did on many others. The overwhelming feeling I had when reading this novel was similar to the one I had when listening to my own family recollections - one of immense gratefulness for having been born into peace and relative affluence of Europe of last 40 years - I often can hardly believe my luck.

The main characters (both sisters, their dead mother and elderly father) are interesting and reasonably well developed, meaningful without sliding into caricature, apart perhaps from Valentina. The father is particularly well drawn, a mixture of your standard dilapidated elderly man and intellectually sharp, slightly Aspergerish Eastern European intellectual. One of the failings of the novel is for me the fact that certain people are almost totally invisible: Nadia's husband Mike is present in the background usually with a glass in hand but rarely even given a word, and the children of both sisters are almost completely absent (apart from one instance rather clumsily written but crucial to the story).

The scenery (Peterborough's Ukrainian immigrant community) is colourfully exotic and the comedy of older and newer immigration is good, overall. As a Pole I found the idea of hoisting a cooker onto a roof rack of a Rolls-Royce hilarious while realistic, after all I have myself been an enthusiastic participant in the process of loading an old Siemens washing machine onto a sailing yacht in Kiel, Germany circa 1984!

As a work of literature 'Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian' suffers from what is perhaps a typical fault of many at least partially autobiographical debut: too much crammed into little space, too many stories in one and not many of them very well explored.

Despite that, I enjoyed this novel, and found it eminently readable, well flowing and colourful. It is moving at times, with passages of clear poetic beauty and scenes of wonderfully absurd farce. It's an easy and pleasant read; nothing demanding but not totally shallow. The language is well used, characters have their own idiom (always easier when non-native half-Englishness is involved, but still) and I found the 'Tractors' inserts (a monumental history of these machines being written by Nikolay Mayevsky) a nice device too.

Recommended for a quiet Saturday in, though don't expect illuminating insights.

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Buy A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka at Amazon.com.


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