I am not a huge fan of the “triumph-of-the-human-spirit” genre. I am a pretty soft touch and I deeply resent being manipulated, but from time to time, I’m caught unawares and charmed. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian did the trick. Reader, I cried at the end.
Not without laughing like a hyena in other spots, mind you, which is one saving grace. Marina Lewycka’s novel is actually fairly close in basic outline to The Clothes on Their Backs. It is another story of the daughter of war-damaged Eastern European immigrants to England. It is cast, however, as a comedy, and reminded me strongly of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, especially as Lewycka winds the plot down, bringing onstage all the characters for a noisy, cheerful finale.
The premise is simple, even predictable: narrator Nadezhda’s ancient Ukrainian father, a widower, wants to marry the rapacious 36-year-old Valentina. She is in England on a temporary visa, and marriage will make her legal. Her chief qualifications appear to be a pair of “superior breasts.” Nadezhda and her ten-years-older sister Vera, who have been at odds since childhood, must cope. Somewhat predictably, their relationship thaws as Nadezhda comes to understand more about her sister’s childhood and their widely different view of life.
Lewycka does two things I admire technically. Though Nadezhda narrates, it is clear that she is pretty tightly wound, stubborn, and quick to fly off the handle — without acknowledging these traits. That’s really hard to pull off. So is the way she narrates scenes she did not witness; Lewycka uses a subtle transitional sentence or to to indicate that she has the information at second hand, and then inserts us into the action. It feels legit in this instance, and it’s very useful.
Of all the funny bits in the book — there is a chapter, for instance, entitled “Green Satin Bra” — my favorite is perhaps the least subtle, a feral cat named “Lady Di” who turns out to be a male. For reasons too complicated to recount, there is a vast immobile Rolls Royce beached in Nikolai’s front yard. (Valentina’s doing, of course.) “Lady Di likes the Roller. There is a window on the rear passenger side that does not fully close, where he can squeeze in. He invites his friends round, too, and they party all night on the sumptuous leather seats, and then spray a bit of piss around to mark that they were there.”
The brilliantly catchy title refers to the book Nikolai is writing. We get excerpts. I had no idea tractors could be so interesting.