A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian: Marina Lewycka

★★★

Thirteen years after it exploded into the bestseller charts, I’ve got around to reading this quirky tale of feuding sisters, immigration appeals and late-life love. Nadia and her older sister Vera are of Ukrainian heritage: their parents moved to Britain after the Second World War, fleeing the brutality of Stalin’s agricultural reforms. They’ve never been close: in fact, they’ve been engaged in a feud for the last two years over the division of their late mother’s assets. But things change abruptly when they hear troubling news. Their eighty-four-year-old father has fallen in love. He’s going to get married again, to Valentina, a pneumatic, blonde, thirty-six-year-old Ukrainian divorcee. Alarm bells start ringing, and Nadia and Vera find themselves forced into a stiff entente as they embark on a mission to protect their vulnerable Pappa – a quest which might just end up in them learning more about themselves along the way.

Pappa thinks it was love at first sight, but he’s never been the most emotionally astute of fathers. Blinded by Valentina’s twin perfections, he overlooks her vampish exploitation of her assets, and shrugs indulgently at demands for an expensive car, money, and a top-level education for her ‘genius’ son Stanislav. Knowing that his two middle-aged daughters will disapprove, he furtively goes behind their backs, defending his right to have a last-chance romance. Compassionate, idealistic Nadia is (briefly) tempted to indulge him. Short-tempered, strict Vera has no such weakness. But Valentina manages to outflank them with her first move and, before the two sisters know what has happened, this ambitious arriviste with her fur coats, her boil-in-the-bag cooking and her petulant demands has set up home in their childhood house.

As Valentina – aided by a cabal of suspiciously close male friends – works out her best route to a residential visa, the two sisters begin researching how they can save their father from her wicked designs. Along the way, Nadia finally has the chance to find out more about the family’s closely-guarded past, as Vera’s prickly refusals are softened by collaboration. Yet, as the plot thickens on both sides, Pappa remains stubbornly in the middle. He resents his daughters’ interference even as his hopes of marital bliss fade into squabbling and recrimination. Yet even in his darkest moments, he finds salvation in his magnus opus, a history of tractors based on his long career as an engineer both in the Ukraine and in England. Although I can’t say that I’m gripped by this subject, these sections allow us to see Pappa as something more than a tragically misguided old man – they give him back his professional dignity and eloquence.

Lewycka herself is in much the same position as her narrator Nadia: her parents came to England at the end of the war, and she grew up in the comforts of the postwar social contract. Her evocation of first-generation immigrant life, and the wartime experience in Ukraine, must have a ring of truth. This background is a saving grace, I admit. Without it, I might’ve been tempted to see Valentina as nothing but an ungenerous cliche of modern Eastern-European womanhood, seen through unsympathetic Western eyes. She’s brash, blonde and surgically enhanced: a very suitable villain for our two wise, well-educated sisters to bounce off. But the problem is that she isn’t really given a chance to be anything but a blowsy caricature, and the story sometimes feels bit two-dimensional because of it. Moreover, the plot sometimes jars when read in the light of the current political climate, where immigration troubles no longer make for such amusing reading.

This is a comedy at heart, spiced with poignant flashbacks as Nadia begins to piece together the story of her own family’s immigration fifty years before. Yet this doesn’t seem to soften her view of Valentina, who might have faced similar travails (though nowhere near as drastic). Nor, indeed, does it affect the picture offered to us as readers. And so the book jumps between historical immigration (good) and contemporary immigration (bad), in a way that occasionally feels just a little bit over-simplistic, even for a comedy. But it’s the plot that just doesn’t quite work in the modern climate (and that’s the fault of the times, not of Lewycka). I quite enjoyed the lively writing style and I have another of Lewycka’s books squirrelled away on my Kindle, so we’ll have a chance to explore more of her work quite soon.

Have you read this? What did you make of it? Did the characters feel a tiny bit caricatured to you? Or do you think I’m being unjust? Share your thoughts…

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One thought on “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian: Marina Lewycka

  1. dehggial says:

    the book jumps between historical immigration (good) and contemporary immigration (bad), in a way that occasionally feels just a little bit over-simplistic, even for a comedy. But it’s the plot that just doesn’t quite work in the modern climate (and that’s the fault of the times, not of Lewycka).

    I haven’t read the book but I think you’re onto something there. I certainly experienced this in a few different ways over the past 20 years, so it’s not just a sign of these particular times. Older gen immigrants do have a tendency to “pull up the ladder” behind them and look at newer arrivals with mistrust and even disdain. Not all of them, of course, but it’s a thing.

    I wonder if the book ever goes into how, after you’ve settled “in the West” for a decade or more, you start to “get Westernised” yourself, so when you go back home to visit you’re never quite feeling at home again (and the second gen even less so; I think it’s the third gen who starts to find a special attraction to “finding its roots”).

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