[27 September 2006]
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, which made last year’s Booker Prize long-list and Orange Prize shortlist, is a well-mixed family tragicomedy that, in spite or perhaps because of its prodigious zip, could have benefited from a substantial cut in its midsection. That said, Marina Lewycka’s debut novel is neatly crafted and singular, its memorable and endearing characters living on well beyond their short-lived collision.
Set in contemporary Great Britain, the novel begins as our narrator, Nadezhda (more frequently referred to as Nadia), finds out that her 84-year-old father is getting remarried, just two years after her mother passed away. This information is not such a big deal until the marriage’s circumstances are more fully revealed. Nadia’s father, Nikolai Mayevskyj, a first-generation Ukrainian immigrant, is marrying a 36-year-old Ukrainian divorcée with one very prodigious bosom and a taste for fur coats, stilettos, and multiple unnecessary and overexpensive automobiles. Nadia’s reaction to the May-December marriage, and to Valentina, her father’s vicious, gold-digging new dish, is vehemently negative—so negative, in fact, that she is compelled to dial up her estranged older sister, Vera, to whom she has not spoken since their mother’s death. From there, the novel traces the sisters’ persistently foiled attempts to get Valentina deported. Alongside this fairly straightforward plot, Lewycka works in chapters from Nikolai’s book on the development of the tractor, as well as Nadia’s gradual excavation of her family’s deeply buried history through her renewed (but still difficult) relationship with Vera.
Nadia is a lively, engaging narrator who makes numerous arch asides to the reader as she tries to reconcile her feminist sensibilities with the urge to call Valentina “hussy”, “wench”, and “tart”. With the exception of Nadia’s somewhat cardboard husband, Mike, the other main characters are dynamic and fascinating, particularly Nikolai, whose eccentricities are both exasperating and endearing.
Essentially, Lewycka uses the arrival of Valentina, who “explodes” into the Mayevskyjs’ lives “like a fluffy pink grenade,” as an entry point into discussing both present-day immigrants’ rights in the UK, and the impact of the Soviet and German occupations on World War II-era Ukraine. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, then, is about neither its titular tractors nor the gold-digging intruder who takes up much of the novel’s room and plot, so much as it is about using the roots of one family’s persistent psychodrama to view the greater crisis of war, power, and national/cultural upheaval.
The problem is that the meat of the story quickly gets overwhelmed by Valentina and the lighthearted comedy that surrounds her. Valentina’s character is so over-the-top that it’s hard to believe she is a threat to Nikolai, who is smitten with her despite her abuse of him. Though she is eventually humanized by Nadia’s sympathy, Valentina, for too long, is treated as a caricature. Her status as villain, backed up by the ridiculous stunts she pulls, quickly becomes farcical. The crux of the book centers around the question of whether Nadia and Vera can team up to get this “hussy” deported back to Ukraine on the basis of a loveless, unconsummated marriage. What is more interesting, of course, is what is happening between Nadia and Vera, as Vera reveals more and more about their family’s past.
Lewycka’s novel encompasses a huge range of emotions, sticking boob jokes in between Nikolai’s harrowing experiences as a young adult in Ukraine. It is an effective approach to discussing fascism, genocide, and labor camps, in that Lewycka hooks the reader with the comedic contemporary saga of Valentina and Nikolai before incorporating the hardships that Nikolai and his first wife, Ludmilla, faced in wartime Ukraine before emigrating to Great Britain. As soon as we tire of Valentina’s antics, we’re time traveling back to a more sobering time; when we find the historical element of the novel too saddening, we’re driven back to more lighthearted fare.
With so much devastating Holocaust literature available, Lewycka takes an unusual and quite smart approach by packaging the devastation with comedy. In a sense, Lewycka placates her readers, giving them doses of slapstick humor to offset the tragedy. This is perhaps why her novel has earned bestseller status; it’s accessible, and it rewards readers for taking on the brief forays into events we’d rather not remember. For some readers, this is perfectly satisfying—you are being entertained while you are being educated. Others will want more meat. They will eventually get it—the last third of the novel is incredibly moving. But they’ll have to be patient with Nikolai and Valentina along the way.