‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’ by Marina Lewycka

Tractors

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Books; 336 pages; 2006.

When 84-year-old British-based Ukrainian widower Nikolai Mayevskyj announces that he is in love with a woman young enough to be his daughter eyebrows are raised. But when he marries the object of his affections — the delightfully eccentric Valentina, a gold-digging Ukrainian with a pair of over-sized breasts, bottle-blonde hair and a rocket-like mission to obtain a British passport — all hell breaks loose.

Nikolai’s daughters, the upstanding divorcee Vera and the left-wing sociologist Nadia, put their lifelong differences aside to protect their father from his own stupidity. The pair band together to thwart Valentina’s less than honourable schemes — with mixed results.

As Valentina bleeds Nikolai dry in pursuit of her much-desired Western lifestyle, the ostrich-like Nikolai concentrates not on reeling her in but in continuing to write his book about the history of tractors (hence this novel’s title).

Set in the Fenlands of England (more specifically Peterborough), A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is a delightfully comic novel about sibling rivalry, family ties and the secrets we keep.

But there’s a darker edge to this book, too. There’s plenty of social and political issues to give the story some gravitas – illegal immigration, spousal abuse and the greed and consumerism of the West to name but a few. The back story regarding the Mayevskyj family’s arrival in the UK, having survived internment in a German war camp, also provides much food for thought and is a nice balance to the slapstick comedy and social satire that permeates much of the book.

My only concern is that the novel is not entirely politically correct. For instance, Valentina, while a hilarious, if somewhat nasty, character is slightly stereotyped. However, given the author’s own Ukrainian background I think she has licence to poke fun at her own people, so I will forgive her this one foible!

Interestingly enough, I found A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian to be in a similar vein to Carrie Tiffany’s Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living — right down to the weird book title, Orange Prize nomination and agricultural references! Both are enjoyable reads with plenty of laughs and a touch of pathos.

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