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'A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian', by Marina Lewyck

Posted: Thu Dec 21, 2006 8:13 pm
by Erik_Kowal
How to dig for gold, in one uneasy lesson

You'll likely recognize the pattern from TV comedy shows: how what starts as a fluffy, unconventionally-set caper played for laughs swiftly shifts to murkier, bumpier territory as soon as the characters hit their stride. Thus it is with Lewycka's tale of two sisters who struggle with each other and with Nikolai, their widowed old papa, to save him from a hopeless bust-fixated lust for his voluptuous, voluptuary new bride Valentina, almost fifty years his junior. Valentina has recently arrived in Britain from the old country, Ukraine, from which Nikolai's family fled Hitler and Stalin at the end of World War II, and she is likewise determined to make a new life for herself and her teenage son in what she hopes will prove to be East Anglia's El Dorado.

In younger sibling Nadya's narrative voice, Lewycka's economical prose quickly strips bare the not-so-trivial daily trivialities and ambivalent relationships of the main characters. What at first seems black and white soon resolves itself in shades of grey as we grow less inclined to take Nadya's perspectives at face value. The underpinning themes might easily have tripped a less footsure storyteller: the loss of homeland, innocence and dreams versus Nikolai's naively mechanistic idealism, the challenges of growing old, and the hope for something better in the future regardless of one's shortcomings. Marina Lewycka's novelistic debut is a skilful feat of juggling that portrays her unruly characters with poignancy, comedy and plenty of painful insights.

If your preference is for writers that wield the feather and the dagger with equal skill and gusto, I think you'll like this book.