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Excellent, Entertaining Debut Novel
on 28 March 2005
I picked up Marina Lewycka's "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian" almost by accident. The title attracted my attention so I picked it up and began reading. After reading the first three sentences, I was sold. They are: "Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blond Ukrainian divorcee. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside." The concern I have with books that begin so well is the difficulty the remainder has in living up to such promise. I am happy to report that Ukrainian Tractors lived up to the promise of its opening paragraph.
The opening sentences sum up the story. Nikolai, his wife and two children Vera and Nadezhda (Nadia) were Ukrainian refugees who, at the conclusion of the Second World War make their way to Peterborough. Vera,born before the war, has memories of the family's travails in German work camps. She is the "war baby." Vera is the basic domineering know-it-all older sister. Nadia is the peace baby, a liberal sociology lecturer with a penchant for buying her clothes used at the local Oxfam. Nadia and Vera have not talked since their mother's funeral. Nikolai picks up he phone one day and announces to Nadia that he is about to take a new bride. Valentina is a young, buxom bottle-blonde Ukrainian whose U.K. residency visa is about to expire. As expected, Vera and Nadia call a truce in order to prevent the marriage and protect their father from a fate they consider worse than death. Nikolai, of course, cannot help but contemplate blissful evenings in the warm embrace of his well-endowed faux-blonde soon to be illegal alien while he writes his book, a history of the tractor, the farm implement that changed the world.
Valentina makes for a worthy adversary and seems to best Vera and Nadia every step of the way. The comedy of the book turns a bit dark, however, as Nikolai's age and infirmities facilitate Valentina's increasing dominance over him. Her mental and physical abuse of Nikolai becomes apparent. At the same time, Lewycka takes us on a trip through the family's past. In the meantime, family ghosts and secrets begin to emerge. Root causes of the family's deep-rooted antagonism begin to reveal themselves as the story progresses. Events race on to a not altogether surprising conclusion.
I very much enjoyed "A Short History of tractors In Ukrainian". I was impressed by the manner in which Lewycka fleshed out the characters. Anyone who has been responsible for the care and feeding of an aging parent or grandparent will recognize Nikolai. One's pride is the last thing to go sometimes and when we see events beat the pride out of our loved ones we can almost see them shrink before our eyes. The two sisters also had a strong air of reality about them. I've seen each type in real life and I think Lewycka captures their essences well. Last but not least we have the Ukrainian bombshell, Valentina. By the end of the book I had no small amount of sympathy for Valentina. I could admire her work effort and her desire to make a better life for herself and her son despite her poor treatment of Nikolai. This is no easy task for a writer to accomplish. At the same time, her grasping nature, her dolled-up appearance, and her belief that ready-made food products were the western equivalent of high cuisine were downright hilarious at times.
The book is not without some minor flaws. Some of the subsidiary characters, Nadia's husband for example, seem a bit lifeless compared to Valentina and Nikolai. However, those relatively minor flaws were swept up in a story that was both charming and thoughtful.