20 May, 2008

'A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian' - Marina Lewycka

Is this novel's title an accurate description of its contents? Yes and no. It does feature a character who is writing a book of the same name, and portions of that book are featured as he reads sections of his masterwork to his family. That family is Ukrainian, though the novel is set in England, where they have lived since fleeing the communist regime in the former Soviet Union.

The novel's title, if it were taken literally, would suggest a dry tome of technical explanations, perhaps even an indecipherable dissertation if it were in fact written in Ukrainian. Instead, this novel is especially warm, poignant and at moments quite funny. Its surface story is that of two middle-aged sisters, Nadia and Vera, dealing with their 84-year-old father deciding to marry a 36-year-old Ukrainian woman, Valentina, who is clearly on a misguided hunt for the untold riches she believes her 'westernised' husband to possess. There is a great deal of intercultural and intergender humour and plenty of absurdity in the story. Just as the title is a furphy to its contents, however, so is the superficial story only one layer, overlying its deeper concerns.

Nadia is the younger of the sisters by ten years, a 'Peace Time Baby', born in England after her family has fled. Her sister Vera is a 'War Baby' who endured both isolation from and internment with her parents during the German occupation. As Nadia and Vera re-establish their fraught relationship in an effort to thwart their money-grabbing stepmother, Nadia begins to probe the family history, to uncover the reasons for the rifts and sore points amongst them. Through this avenue, as well as via excerpts from the old man's tractor treatise, the reader is given an empathetic history of the Ukraine and the troubles it has experienced during and after World War II.

Of particular focus is the transition from communism to capitalism. This is dealt with amusingly through Valentina's assumptions about the free, capitalist wonderland of England (insisting on purchasing a 'prestigious' gas stove, rather than a 'peasant' electric cooker for example). The 'Short History of Tractors' puts the transition into a more economic context, relating capitalism and its availability of funds to over-expansion of agriculture, consequent damage to farming land, and the 1929 stockmarket crash. More philosophically, however, the effects of both systems are shown as we learn more about the family's history, of what they endured in the Ukraine, what still haunts them in their new home in England and what they feel capable of making of their lives.

If the content and themes sound a bit heavy and preachy, the style alleviates any notion of an academic slog. The book is very much a story, not a treatise, related using a large proportion of dialogue (with the rendition of the Ukranians' stilted English particularly effective). Valentina's shenanigans are frequently giggle-worthy and the main narrator, Nadia, elucidates the corollary affection and exasperation inherent in caring for an aging parent. Although there are serious themes - fraught family relationships, finances in despair, consequences of terrible conflict - the style remains decent and gentle. The narrative is broken several times a page with line-breaks, which can make it a little jerky when one expects the blank line to represent a break between scenes, rather than just an aside.

Lewycka's style neither trivialises the brutality of her character's history nor over-emphasises it: family squabbles, many of which are a product of war-time events, are dealt with in equal accord to international ones.


  1. i picked up 'two caravans' by marina lewycka the other day!! awesome.

  2. Fantastic - look forward to reading about it if it makes it to your blog!