Wednesday 1 February 2012

Three Post Day

I am trying to catch up on my book reviews so will get on and do this so I can go back to knitting. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka has also been part of the Orange January Challenge, it having been on the shortlist in 2005 (and was also long-listed for the Booker) (that's a good way to spend an hour or two, checking back over old book review posts to see if they are on any of the various prize lists and labelling them accordingly).

I know nothing about the Ukraine specifically but am guessing that the experience of being part of an immigrant community is commonly a mixture of integration and continuing to identify with their former homeland. The book is written from the point of view of Nadezhada, who's parents arrived in Britain after the war, and while partly the story is about the experience of being an immigrant it is also dealing with universal truths about family relationships. Nadezhada and her sister Vera are not speaking after a dispute over their mother's will but they are thrown back together by a family crisis. Their father plans to remarry, to a voluptuous young Ukrainian woman called Valentina. They are convinced he is being taken advantage of and become determined to put a stop to the whole thing. And so ensues a complex wrangle that leads the participants through a maze of heated emotions and fierce confrontation. Threaded through the modern day drama is the story of her parent's backgrounds, how they came to be together and their sometimes life threatening wartime experience, and her father's preoccupation with tractors and the book he is writing.

What I liked particularly was getting a very strong sense of their cultural identity, and how their experience of being incomers, and their wartime privations, continued to affect everything about how they lived. The reader gets an understanding of a whole different set of assumptions and priorities. This is a description of her grandparent's wedding:

"The Ocheretko men strode into the church in their riding-boots, embroidered shirts and outlandish baggy trousers. The women wore wide swinging skirts and boots with little heels and coloured ribbons in their hair. They stood together in a fierce bunch at the back of the church and left abruptly at the end without tipping the priest.
The Blazhkos looked down on the groom's family, whom they thought uncouth, little more than brigands, who drank too much and never combed their hair. The Ocheretkos thought the Blazhkos were prissy urbanites and traitors to the land. Sonia and Mitrofan didn't care what their parents thought. They had already consummated their love, and its fruit was on her way." (p.63)

There is a strong eclectic cast of characters, who all have an opinion about what other people should be doing, except maybe the enigmatic Mike (Nadezhada's husband), who just listens while Nikolai talks about tractors. The two women have such a contrast of experience, Vera having been a war child and Nadezhada being a post-war baby. The story is very fast paced, lurching from one crisis to another, the two sisters lurching between cooperating in the face of a shared enemy and returning to their lifelong animosity. There is a certain element of what feels like self-parody, and the lengths to which Valentina goes to try and get what she wants borders on the farcical. There is a lot of rushing backwards and forwards, and shouting and threatening. The one thing I might have like would be to have more points of view, so that you could get an idea of her motivation. All we have is the two sisters discussing her, and ascribing their own understanding onto the events; is she really as unfeeling and mercenary as they think. In contrast to the previous book Valentina crashes through their family causing all sorts of disruption and you feel at the end as if she has had a long lasting impact on them. I confess I did not read the bits of the tractor book that Nikolai is writing, I get the impression maybe I missed some political depth to the story. While I quite enjoyed the book I found myself irritated by the people and their inconsistent behaviour and inability to deal with the threat of Valentina. Many reviews described the book as very funny, but I did not read it like that at all. There are bits that are quite harrowing and there is quite a strong sense of the ongoing impact of history. I certainly felt that I learned a lot from the book but it's strength is very much in the interplay of the vital characters; it is one crazy story and you can't help but empathise with poor Nikolai and hope that all those people stop interfering in his life.

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