Marina Lewycka

"A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage AUG 26, 2006)

"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 a sludge  of sloughed off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside."

Marina Lewycka’s delightful debut novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian explores the disastrous consequences that occur when an elderly widower living in the suburbs of Britain marries an exploitive Ukrainian woman. The book begins when middle-aged Nadezhda gets a phone call from her octogenarian father. He’s been widowed for two years, but still lives in the family’s former home. His telephone call is to announce his impending marriage to a 36-year-old divorcee named Valentina who is currently in England on a tourist visa. While Nadezhda’s father explains the relationship as a means to allow Valentina to remain in England and to seek an education for her “extraordinarily gifted” son, it’s soon clear to Nadezhda that her father is enamored with Valentina. Described as a “cultured woman” by her aged fiance, Valentina is supposedly a pharmacist who discusses Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, but underneath these cerebral pursuits, there’s an undercurrent of sexual attraction—a facet of the relationship that Nadezhda shies away from. It’s not an easy matter for Nadezhda to accept her father’s “sexual awakening” or the fact that he’s “drooling over this painted Russian tart.”

Nadezhda normally prides herself on her liberal views. A communist in her youth, she’s now happily married and is a professor. Nadezhda’s parents were Ukrainian immigrants who were both fortunate enough to escape Stalin’s purges, and part of the father’s desire to “save” Valentina is his overall desire to salvage anything Ukrainian. He has long “harboured fantasies of rescuing destitute Ukrainians,” but these plans were cut short by his now-deceased wife’s practicality. While Nadezhda would like to give Valentina the moral benefit-of-the doubt, Vera, Nadezhda’s older sister, takes a more cynical, practical view of their father’s impending nuptials and acidly asserts that he’s “just mesmerized by her boobs.” But as much as Nadezhda tries to take a broad minded view towards her new stepmother, it’s impossible to ignore Valentina’s grasping outrageous demands.

Valentina is a dreadful person, and she’s even more dreadful when contrasted to Nadezhda’s deceased, frugal mother—a woman who kept an immaculate house, and a splendid, productive garden. In contrast, Valentina is a slob whose pretensions to housekeeping extend to frozen food. Under her slovenly domestic dominion, the household disintegrates into chaos, and at one point Nadezhda discovers “a half eaten ham sandwich” wrapped in an abandoned pair of Valentina’s grubby knickers.

Valentina’s presence in the household stirs many memories, and both daughters remember some unpleasant facts about their father’s temperament that they’ve submerged into filial acceptance. But these resentments come rushing to the surface as crisis follows upon crisis. While Valentina, determined to plunge headlong into the excesses of capitalist culture, makes monstrous materialistic demands on the meager pension of “no-good meanie husband,” Nadezhda—and her sister—are forced to intervene. And with a “common enemy” the sisters finally discover a meeting ground on which they can repair their damaged relationship.

A great deal of the dialogue spoken by Valentina is in broken English. As a general rule, any author should think twice before deciding to write in broken English. It’s terribly hard to maintain consistency, and it also presents a challenge for the reader. In this case, author Lewycka manages to carry off the awkwardness of the dialogue simply because she chooses to tell this tale with a light, humorous tone.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is a delightfully entertaining read. However, the material tackles some tough subjects—aging, familial relationships, and the immigrant experience, while touching on the Russian revolution, Nestor Makhno and the devastation of the Ukraine. On another level, the author also very successfully explores the idea that siblings within the same family can have remarkably different childhoods, and also recall widely different information from childhood. This novel could so easily have been written with a different tone—after all the subject matter is deadly serious. In another author’s hands, perhaps the novel would not be as successful. Lewycka’s style and tone ultimately celebrates the triumph of the human spirit over adversity—the enormous world shattering events—such as Stalin’s purges, and the smaller but still traumatic upheaval experienced by one little family when the Ukrainian blonde bombshell, Valentina moves in and takes over.
  • Amazon readers rating: from 118 reviews


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* Published as Two Caravans in UK



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About the Author:

Marina LewyckaMarina Lewycka was born of Ukrainian parents in a refugee camp at the end of World War II and grew up in England. In the course of researching her family roots for this novel, she uncovered no fewer than three long-lost relatives. She won won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, a comic prize. It was also nominated for the Orange prize and the Man Booker Prize.

She teaches at Sheffield Hallam University. She lives in Sheffield, Yorkshire, with her husband, and has one adult daughter. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014