The premise is deceptively simple. Pappa, an 84-year-old, recently widowed, Ukrainian immigrant falls in love with a flash, brash and breast-enhanced floozy from his homeland, fifty years his junior. She, for her part, wants the luxurious life of a westerner with the colour co-ordinated kitchen, the private school education for her genius son and the top prize of a British passport. To the chagrin of his two adult daughters, Pappa marries Valentina and takes her and her son, Stanislav into his home. But all is far from rosy in the English idyll. Pappa can’t support Valentina in the style to which she wishes to become accustomed and Valentina can’t stop her flirty affairs with other men. The two daughters, who haven’t been on speaking terms since the death of their mother, are re-united in their efforts to save their father and oust Valentina in his affections.
Simple, so far? Well, yes. And no. The portrait of Pappa, with his conflicts between love and loneliness, between lust and old age, between loyalty towards his daughters and his desire for a new and vital existence with the larger than life Valentina is beautifully drawn. And Valentina, with her green satin bras, foul-mouthed pigeon English and apparent obsession with materialism eventually demands as much sympathy as derision. To some degree both are stereo-typical but that only serves to make the understanding of their complex and very human desires all the more poignant. Pappa’s fascination with the history of tractors – itself mildly interesting – is wonderfully juxtapositioned against the very practical concerns of sex, money, immigration and divorce and the occasional, short extracts from his book on the topic underline the wastefulness of the war which ravaged Ukraine, and the rest of Europe, in the mid 20th century, so forcefully highlighted as Vera and Nadia, his two daughters, explore together their family history and the reasons for their differences.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is a quirky, enjoyable and easy read but in the end one can’t escape the conclusion that Lewycka has just tried to do too much, to address too many themes, in the space of 300 odd pages. The overall effect therefore leaves a sense that the humour is inappropriate within such deep issues and the commentary on social conditions is undermined by the humour. It’s a shame that the reader is almost made to feel guilty about chortling along with such a range of wonderfully comic characters. It’s just too ambitious. It almost works, but not quite.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was first published in 2005 by Viking. It won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize (the UK’s only prize for comic novels) at the Hay Literary Festival in 2005 and the Waverton Good Reading Award in 2005/06. It was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005.
Read and reviewed in 2006
© Jessica Mulley, 2006, 2014