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Book review: <i>A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian</i> by Marina Lewycka

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the cover of the book

If this was an alcoholic drink, it would be a sweet and surprisingly potent plum wine, brewed to an old family recipe.


A woodcut-style print on charming wholemeal paper, using flat blocks of colour to show a woman on a tractor between some hand-drawn type.


Nikolai, a Ukrainian pensioner, is widowed, having lived in suburban UK with his wife for fifty years. His daughters Nadia (the narrator) and Vera (the eldest) visit regularly. Nikolai has had big ideas his whole life, though, and one of his latest is to import a new wife from the Ukraine. Valentina is a recently divorced, huge-bosomed Ukrainian beauty with a teenage son - what she would want with an eighty-something widower isn't even a mystery to the eighty-something widower, but even eighty-something widowers have needs, and Nikolai seems convinced that, in a fair exchange for housework and the odd fondle of some boosies, he'll provide shelter, a marriage visa, and the chance for Valentina's son to get an education. No harm, no foul.

The good

This is, in essence, a family drama. If you'll forgive the generalisation, women write the best family dramas, and Lewycka skilfully works her Ukrainian heritage into the plot - it's often grim, and it often informs but never overwhelms the main story. Around the snapshot of a foolish old man and his two bickering daughters, Lewycka creates a solidly believable framework of familial history, which she then embellishes with curlicues of comedy and human frailty, and etches with the darker shadows of Eastern Europe's past.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is a debut novel, and Lewycka invests the three central characters with a density of personal experience. Nadia, Vera and their father Nikolai ring with a truth that puts them beyond caricature, and means that the blanks in their stories serve as mysteries, not missed opportunities. The drabness of suburban Peterborough in the nineties is almost a character in itself, particularly the house where Nikolai lives. Childhood home of Nadia and Vera, it's now home to Valentina, the "fluffy pink hand grenade," who is definitely on a short fuse. Whenever Nadia visits, though, she sees the melancholy ruins of her mother's intense Eastern European frugalty - the garden growing wild, apples decaying in the shed, or the fiercely alcoholic plum wine still knocking out guests on the sofa.

Lewycka's prose is as crisp and tart as a granny smith. Her narrator, Nadia, is a smart, austere, happily married sociologist who dresses as frugally as her mother kept her kitchen. Yet she also craves the love of her sister and father, and is quite comfortable (and quite plausible) playing against her own conscience if it will help her to get it. It is Nadia, too, born in the UK, unlike her big sister, who seeks to pry open, one door at a time, the closets of her family's past. For those who witnessed it, these are doors they'll happily leave closed and, for all her awfulness, one finds oneself, like Vera, empathising with Valentina's white-trash blingophilia on the grounds of what she must have wanted to escape from badly enough to travel half way around the world and marry a grandfather.

My favourite aspect of Tractors in Ukranian, outside the sisters' relationship, is the way Lewycka reveals the scars from the family's life in the Ukraine. Nadia's father and sister are perpetually reluctant to air personal memories of the terror, pain and deprivation they suffered, nor, more specifically, the way these things caused them to act toward each other: Nikolai was a coward, his wife abandoned her tiny daughter for two years to work, and the daughter was a shameful burden on her parents. On an intimate scale, it shows the way Communism renders its subjects utterly alone - unable to trust even their nearest and dearest; this in a society, ironically, where the family, the farm, and the village were at the heart of existence. The topic may seem too big, and too exhaustively mined, for Lewycka to uncover anything new, but that's not the point. Politics aside, this family history is just a more extreme version of the family narrative we've all experienced and been influenced by, whether we discuss it with a psychiatrist or not. The reluctance of the family to dwell on these matters also serves to give the treatment a sort of dismissive dignity which allows it to function effectively within this sometimes silly book. And this is a great example of Lewycka's potential as a writer - in her debut, here, she uses historical tragedy in a comedy to illuminate character, while adding to the weight of all three and denigrating none. If you can pull that off, you're on your way.

Women writers are also, let's face it, good at emotional surprise. One could be forgiven for thinking, in the book's first chapters, that Valentina will one day become a part of the family (which cleverly makes us begin the book by choosing sides within the family - romantic optimists with the father on the right, please), but ultimately Tractors is too grounded a story for that to happen. Which doesn't preclude one of my favourite scenes, however: After six months living with his new wife, Nikolai has only permitted a couple of brief visits from his daughters, suspecting, correctly, that they intend to pry into his new lifestyle. Eventually, the whole gang come together for a predictably awkward Christmas dinner in a cheap restaurant. No expectations are upset, in fact the likelihood of Valentina being a gold-diggin' trollop is strongly reinforced in the sisters' heads. After the meal, car groups are divided haphazardly. Nadia and Valentina end up walking the icy streets of London together. Holding on to each other for balance, giggly with wine, the two vastly different women share a moment of yuletide empathy, and a hint, perhaps, of a positive physical side to Valentina that the sisters are otherwise eager to shrink from. Nadia's controlled self-awareness isn't infallible, either - she realises long after the reader does that her steely, Gucci-clad sister Vera has a lot in common with the brand-worshipping, upwardly-mobile Valentina. It is a further testament to the quality of Lewycka's characterisation that she gives the sisters less historical "screen time" than their parents, yet they're rendered into sharp relief by their relationship with each other. That's character development right there.

The bad

Outside the central trio (and the invisible echo of the mother), the characters' stories remain incomplete and unresolved. This is deliberate - the narration is not omniscient - but it does allow several characters, particularly the men, to pass through our view as little more than sketches. I also found the character of Valentina to be something akin to Teddy KGB in the film Rounders. He was obviously intended as a loud, kinetic, larger-than-life personality, fiercely proud of his homeland from his accent on down, yet when Malkovich portrayed him as such, critics had a right old time with their care-worn "ham" and "scenery chewer" analogies. Yet, I must admit I found Valentina less exciting and concussive than the wonderful "fluffy pink hand grenade" analogy that page one led me to hope for. I suppose the problem is that she is exactly what we (and the narrator, and the narrator's sister) expect; neither more or less mad or likeable, and occasionally threatening to become a caricature, if only by constantly behaving as we would expect one to do so. Of course, there ARE people in our lives, some of them even American presidents, who seem to exist almost solely in order to fulfil our every worst expectations (and, in Nadia's case, secret desires). Nonetheless, it would've been fun to learn more about her motivations beyond those we ascribe to her from the comfort of our spoilt Western armchairs. YES I realise that was probably the point, NO it didn't satisfy my curiosity.

The "Tractor" in the title refers to a book Nikolai is writing about the history of tractors, from which we are treated to excerpts every now and then. I think the idea is that the history of tractors is the history of the industrialisation of agriculture, which occurred at the same time as Communism took hold in the East. It serves the purpose of showing that Nikolai is not (completely) the immature, blustery old dickhead he sometimes appears to be, but beyond that I thought the Communism aspects were quite well served within the stories from Nadia and her father, and the entire tractor book stuff only added up to about ten pages anyway so I don't think it would have been greatly missed. Lately I seem to keep reading books which contain half-baked meta-narrative experiments or post-modern flourishes. I'm not saying don't experiment, people, but you've got to COMMIT.

OK, a word on the topic of hilarity. One sunny day I bought the McSweeney's Book of Lists without any real idea of what it was, took it to a bar, and read it cover to cover. For a good hundred minutes I laughed more or less constantly in a kind of silent, shuddering, drool-emitting state punctuated only by occasional gulps of beer and visits to the toilet. I was on a high for the whole next day. I would safely call that hilarious. I sent a heartfelt email to my entire address book informing them that this was the funniest book in all creation and an all-round life-changing experience. I would safely call that an over-reaction. The lesson is that hilarity is a subjective, ephemeral experience, as opposed to a mere "funny" experience, which we can all reliably obtain by watching a youtube of George Bush falling over. FOR SOME REASON, this does not seem to have occurred to people who review books professionally, possibly for the same reason that it has never occurred to them that NO book recreates the experience of BEING on acid, READING on acid, or a parallel universe where ANYONE has EVER written or read ANY book ON ACID, AT ALL. But this hilarity shit has got to stop. I mean OK, stand-up comedians on DVD tend to get over-positive blurb quotes, because the reviewer usually saw the show live and was caught up in the atmos. Fair enough. But who are these people shitting their pants on "the tube" to books which might, if you're lucky, raise a wry smile on page 115? This book is NOT hilarious. I'm sorry, but it's not. Not by even the most generous stretch of the imagination. I would describe it, at best, as occasionally amusing, and that's if you like your humour dry, wry and character-based.

What I learnt

A bit about the history of the Ukraine.

Further awfulnesses committed by the fucking Russian Communists, including exactly how effective starvation can be when used as a tool of control against a populace by a sufficiently murderous dictator, once he's destroyed their ability to employ their inherited knowledge of food production.

In short

Title: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
Author: Marina Lewycka
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0143036746
Year published:
Pages: 304
Genre(s): Contemporary literature, Humour
Review Type: