Marina Lewycka’s A short history of tractors in Ukrainian

Have you ever been to one of those concerts where the pianist plays every note perfectly but you still walk out of the concert hall without being truly moved by the music? That’s what Marina Lewycka’s debut novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, feels like. An accomplished, well-crafted book that makes for enjoyable reading, but totally fails to overwhelm you.

There are many promising things about the novel – not the least of which is its plot. A Short History is the story of an eighty-four year old widower, a Ukrainian who moved to England after the War, who falls in love with, and marries, a thirty-six year old gold-digger desperately trying to escape the new realities of the Ukrainian economy. As the widower’s two daughters, Vera and Nadia (the narrator), come together to protect their father from the clutches of this greedy interloper, their common cause becomes occasion for a rapprochement between the two estranged sisters and the starting point for an exploration of their family and past. As the novel unfolds, this family bickering becomes a window into a world of memories that allows us to explore not only the history of this family, but also the larger history of Ukraine in the 20th century*. At one point in the novel the narrator’s father (who is writing a book about the history of tractors) links the great Depression of the 30’s and the great War that followed it to the excessive use of tractors in the US mid-west. That, in a sense, is the key conceit of this book – the idea that things are always more complicated than they seem and linked in suprising ways; and that it’s the little details that we rarely think about that shape the larger courses of all our lives.

If all this sounds too serious, it is nicely off-set by Lewycka’s easy-going writing style – the understated richness of her prose, its bitter-sweet quality. Lewycka’s style is somewhere between Nick Hornby and Graham Swift – without the coolness of the one or the intensity of the other. I was reminded a little of Toibin in Blackwater Lightship except that where Toibin is graceful and moving, Lewycka is funny. One of the sharpest gifts of the book is the way Lewycka, like many an immigrant writer before her, captures so perfectly the nuances of speech of those for whom English remains a foreign tongue. I know nothing about Ukrainian speech, but the little riffs on the language sound incredibly authentic, so that you can actually hear the words being said that way, and these inflections make the whole story seem more fantastic – more somehow, exotic – than it really is. There are some nice comic touches here (one especially brilliant moment where all the gold-digger’s lovers come together to bond over a broken down Rolls Royce – men!), but Lewycka’s real gift is more for a sort of soft-focus realism – the ability to make us feel compassion for the characters even as she makes fun of them.

Why then is this not a moving book? The first reason, I think, is that the plot seems too contrived, too clever. Decades of novels about immigrant families making a new life in the West and looking back with nostalgia to their past in the Homeland have made the whole notion a cliche (the book to read, if you really want to see this done at its best is Nabokov’s Pnin), and stories about estranged siblings being brought together by a family calamity are a dime a dozen. Lewycka’s novel is well written, but it feels like little more than a riff on a cloyingly familiar theme. This is made worse by the fact that Lewycka doesn’t quite manage to bring the different parts of the story seamlessly together – the stitches show through. There’s a sense of the deliberateness to the book – you can almost see the author thinking “let me put in a reminiscence about the grandmother, right about here”, even while you’re reading it.

The second problem is that the novel is too ‘short’, too sketchy. None of the subplots here have enough depth to get you seriously involved – you barely begin to be drawn into the situation before it resolves itself. There’s too little here to give you that sense of sweeping history or deep-founded conflict. This may be Lewycka’s point, of course, but to me the attempts to make this more than a book about an old man’s ridiculous obsession seemed weak, almost abortive.

The third issue I have with the book is that Lewycka takes the easy way out and stereotypes the main villain of the piece – the new wife Valentina. While there are a number of points in the book where the narrator tells us that she feels sorry for Valentina, this never really comes through – except, perhaps, right at the end. For all the understanding and compassion Lewycka lavishes on her other characters, Valentina gets surprisingly little. This is useful as a comic device, but it weakens the overall structure of the novel, loading it in the favour of the narrator. Had Lewycka chosen to let Valentina been less of an evil harridan and more of a desperate immigrant, this would have been a braver, more powerful book. Instead, much of the humour seems too easy, almost trite.

Bottomline: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is an extremely competent novel that makes for an enjoyable read. It is well imagined and skilfully written, and has a nice bitter-sweet quality to it. It is by no means a brilliant book though – and feels, at times, too much like a book written by someone who has spent too much time reading literary theory and too little time yearning to write**. Will it win the Booker / does it deserve to? I would almost certainly say No (specially in a year like this one) – but then, I’ve been wrong before.

Notes:

* I can’t help thinking that A Short History of Ukraine in Tractors may have been a better title!

** 59 year old Lewycka teaches at Sheffield Hallam University. As an interesting side-bar to the book, there’s a strong sense of autobiography to the book – the narrator is a sociology professor at a Polytechnic who was born to Ukrainian parents right after the war – pretty much a description of Lewycka herself.

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