(Reviewed by Guy Savage AUG 26, 2006)
“For as that brainy beardy Karl Marx said, no person can ever build up a fortune just by his own labor, but in order to become VIP elite rich you must appropriate the labor of others. In pursuit of this dream, many ingenious human solutions have been applied throughout the millennia, from slavery, forced labor, transportation, indentured labor, debt bondage, and penal colonies, right through to casualizations, zero hours contract, flexible working, no-strike clause, compulsory overtime, compulsory self-employment, agency working, subcontracting, illegal immigration, outsourcing and many other such maximum-flexibility organizational advances.”
Marina Lewycka’s first novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was a great read and a good deal of fun. It’s the story of an octogenarian Ukrainian living in Britain who marries a decades-younger, gold-digging Ukrainian blonde bombshell, much to the horror of his two middle-aged daughters. I enjoyed the book very much, and I made a note of the author’s name, hoping that Lewycka’s next novel would be as good as the first.
In Strawberry Fields, Lewycka once again steps into the territory of Ukrainian immigration. Told through multiple narrators (including a dog), the lively plot follows the fortunes and misfortunes of several migrant workers as they attempt to navigate the seedy reality of Britain’s invisible network of exploitive employment. The book’s main characters are two Ukrainians, Irina, a snobby middle class girl who breaks away from an unhappy claustrophobic home life to seek her fortune in Britain, and Andrij, a miner’s son. When the novel begins, Irina arrives on a strawberry farm, delivered by a brutish Russian handler, named Volk: “he looked quite a bit like his car: overweight, built like a tank, with a gleaming silver front tooth, a shiny black jacket, and a straggle of hair tied in a ponytail hanging down his back like an exhaust pipe.”
All the migrant workers on the farm are there for the same reasons: to improve their lives and make some money in the process. Flotsam and jetsam from Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa they live in overcrowded caravans parked on the hillside of a large strawberry farm owned by a local farmer. Farmer Leaping and his rapacious wife congratulate themselves on their business acuity when it comes to managing their workers. They have a great system with bogus corporations that deduct rent and food costs from their workers’ already pitiful wages, and Leaping slyly acknowledges “the beauty of it is that half of what you fork out in wages you can claw back in living expenses.” With a shower that doesn’t work, and a toilet that’s locked at nighttime, the workers are fed (and charged for) the cheapest provisions Leaping can manage while he smugly congratulates himself on giving the workers opportunities that are "better" than anything in their own countries. Leaping’s system of managing his workers is one of the more exploitive in the local strawberry farming community, but his employees aren’t in a position to compare job sites.
With the men living in one overcrowded caravan and the women piled in another, it looks as though Leaping’s workers have a busy summer season ahead, but fate intervenes. When Irina arrives on the farm site, the Polish supervisor, Yola senses that Irina will disrupt the harmony of the migrant workers’ community, and Irina acts as a catalyst for some of the disasters that occur. While Irina goes on the run from her would-be boyfriend/pimp Volk, the rest of the migrant workers, led by Andrij leave the farm. Cast adrift with very little money and no support network, this international crew sets out on an odyssey across the British countryside in a rundown Landrover with a tatty caravan in tow.
All of the characters are seen as part of a hierarchal food chain. Farmer Leaping and his ilk are at the top of the dung pile with the hired thugs directly below them to provide the necessary human labor for various industries—farm workers, waitresses, janitors, prostitutes and slaughterhouse workers. Leaping is removed from the actual acquisition of labor, and so he can tell himself he’s doing his workers a favor by giving them a job and a roof over their heads. This is a world where opportunistic “recruitment consultants” feed off of the labor of migrant workers they basically pimp out to employers who are too cheap and too greedy to see their workforce as human beings.
But as awful as conditions are on Leaping’s farm, the migrant farm workers discover that they’ve gone from the frying pan into the fire when they seek other jobs. On their journey, Andrij and Irina meet yuppies, eco-warriors, miners, and even Mr. Mayevskyj from A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian makes a brief appearance.)
I cannot say enough good things about this marvelous novel. It’s part romance, part adventure story, but the sum total is a fantastic read. In this age of silly, fluffy and supercilious books, Lewycka creates in Strawberry Fields, a rare novel of social conscience. In just under 300 delightful pages she tackles several serious issues: illegal immigration, the exploitation of migrant workers, the Ukrainian Revolution, and factory farming. And all of this is managed with humor and a light, ironic touch. There is no heavy-handed manipulation, preachiness, or conscience bashing as the serious issues are seamlessly woven into the fast-paced, engaging plot. And neither is this some touchie-feelie book puffed full of saccharine nonsense. It’s to Lewycka’s credit and skills as a writer that she manages to create and maintain humor in the dire conditions that face her characters.
Part of the humor is found in the sheer necessity but near impossibility of aligning the migrant workers’ illusions of the “freedom” that awaits them in Britain with the ugly realities of exploitive labor practices. Irina, who prides herself on education and culture, only has the stereotypes from her English language lesson books to refer to, and these images fail to prepare her for the varied types of native Britains she meets. Snobby at first, her class barriers melt as she recognizes that she’s in the same position as her fellow migrant workers. Andrij has fantasies about British women and dreams of finding a sexy “Angliski” woman so that “he could drown in the torrent of their passion.” And according to one of the workers, the sly Vitaly, Angliski women are “attracted to dashing men of action” who “climb in through bedroom windows bearing boxes of chocolates.” This is a subtle reference to the television ads for Milk Tray chocolates in which a James Bond style hero endures impossible tasks in order to deliver a box of chocolates to a woman. It’s these subtle references that underscore that the immigrants come to Britain suffering from their own stereotypes—just as we suffer from stereotypes of immigrants. And it’s this sort of reference and gracious acceptance of the foibles of human nature that make Strawberry Fields such a wonderful, warm read.
- Amazon readers rating: from 15 reviews
(back to top)
Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (2005)
- Strawberry Fields (2007) *
- We Are All Made of Glue (2010)
* Published as Two Caravans in UK
(back to top)
- MostlyFiction.com interview with Marina Lewycka
- Guardian interview with Marina Lewycka
- BBC interview with Marina Lewycka
- MostlyFiction.com review of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
- Reading Guide and Q&A for Strawberry Fields
- The New York Times review of Strawberry Fields
(back to top)
About the Author:
Marina 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.