“A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian” by Marina Lewycka

Fun. It’s written in the person of a Ukrainian-British woman, telling the story of her father’s disastrous marriage in widowerhood to a more recent Ukrainian immigrant, the well-named and warhead-breasted Valentina. It’s very funny, but succeeds mostly I think because of the strength of its characters: particularly the father Nikolai and his wife Valentina, but also the narrator Nadia, her sister Vera, and down even to minor figures like the English-rose solicitor Ms Carter. Then there’s the late arrival Dubov, and even Nadia’s husband Mike gets clearly drawn. The writing is similarly strong and clear – brisk – even the more literary passages convey this vital physicality: plants in gardens fighting each other.
Where I think she’s less successful (but it’s not a significant weakness) is in her running as a parallel to Nikolai’s comic affair Nadia’s gradual learning about her family’s past – the horrors her parents and sister endured in Stalin’s famine and the war with Germany. Many serious novels do this (I can think of D.M Thomas’ The White Hotel and Bernard Schlink’s The Reader/em>), but I haven’t seen it in a comedy before, and am not sure if the attempt at bittersweet counterpoint works as well as the writer might have hoped. Still, her accounts of what happened in the Ukraine and at the forced-labour camp at Dachensee do, in their sitting uneasily with the capers in Peterborough, make us realise how absolutely insignificant the things we moan about are compared with what went on in the darker periods of history. There are interesting links between the two periods: Vera and Valentina’s thefts, the role of wider family members in looking after each other, and perhaps at a broader level aspects of human conflict on micro- and macro-levels.

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