Monday, March 19, 2007

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

I don’t usually read books that people go on and on about. Partly, because you end up knowing so much about the book…there isn’t any adventure to it. Partly, because I like to be individual and shun things that might make it look like I’m conforming…..how self-aware is that statement!!!! Truth is, I don’t usually enjoy highly recommend books, because I find they are usually sad, and I just don’t need to read about the suffering of others. I’m a very sensitive person and being bombarded with my own memories and the lives of those around me is enough…without reading more.

Anyway, I’m discussing this because I’ve gone out on a limb once again and read something that was highly talked about. Unlike Arthur and George (see previous review), I liked this book very much. I did not, however, find it as funny as the blurbs on the book cover made out to be. I found it a very good read and I would recommend it.

The narrator of the book (Nadezhda or Nadia), is the youngest daughter of immigrants to England from the Ukraine. The mother has recently passed away. The father, to the horror of his two girls, has decided to marry a visiting Ukrainian woman. The woman wants to move to England, and obviously is using this frail 80 year old man, to make this happen. You never get a really good feel for Valentina, other than what the narrator tells you. She is a bit stereotypical; she uses the last of the money given to her before moving over to stop along the way and get breast implants. She eats boil-n-bag food and wants a Rolls-Royce, because it is important to have these as western status symbols.

The relationship between Valentina and the father is only secondary really to the story. The important relationships to me are those between the narrator and her father and sister. Nadia and her sister Vera, have a very rocky relationship. Nadia has always been concerned with others. She was involved in the socialist movement of the 60’s and teaches sociology at University. Vera is a survivalist, she thinks of her and her children before anything else. They are polar opposites. As the story goes along you see that having a common enemy has made it possible for these sisters to communicate. Instead of just avoiding each other, they have to work together to help their father. At the end of the book, the narrator has a better understanding of why her sister is who she is. The revelation is stunningly done. Because it isn’t chronological, you get the pieces a bit at a time. I find this wonderful.

I think that Nadia learns a bit more about her father during this book also. There is of course the struggle of a child becoming the caretaker. Both Vera and she have to help their father out of the situation he is in, but they have to learn to understand him a bit more too. Nadia finds out, as we do, that her mother, father and sister’s lives have been shaped by what happened to them in World War II. The things that are revealed about the father show that he is a survivalist like Vera. There aren’t heroic tales of his ability to help others. He did what he had to, to survive. Instead of making Nadia hate him, she realizes that what happens in war is not rational or sane. As she is fighting the “war” with Valentina, she finds her self doing many things that are against her usual ideology. To protect her father she feels that she finds herself torn between trying to understand and befriend Valentina and getting her out of her father’s life. Once Valentina starts to physically abuse him though, she does what she has to, to help him survive, because this time he can’t do it on his own.

So what about the title of the book? Well, the father has decided that he must write the history of tractors. This helps us to understand the history of the area, through tractors instead of through the battles or just the explanation of the politics. It is an interesting way to learn history, not as dry as it sounds. I think it also helps to humanize the father. He isn’t just an old man, who is being taken advantage of. He is also a very intelligent person, who retains lots of information about the topic that has always been important to him.

4 comments:

Lesley said...

I've got this one on my TBR shelf, ever since almost picking it for a book club selection last year (I opted for Atonement instead). Glad to hear you enjoyed it!

heidijane said...

I know what you mean about resisting "overly hyped" books, as I tend to do the same. Maybe because I'm keen to be an individual and choose my own reading matter, rather than simply following the crowd...

But I have read this book, and did enjoy it, but I agree with you that it is an entertaining read, rather than hugely funny. Glad you enjoyed it!

Melanie said...

I liked this book a lot, though it wasn't nearly as hyped here in Canada (at least that I was aware of). Anyhow, I like your review - that's what I thought too!

valentina said...

I found this book to be really good for the first half but then it sort of dragged the ending. I loved the funny language of the father and the fights between the two sisters, but I was slightly disappointed. But I will always remember this book because it's my first release in the wild. Still traveling...