I picked up A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian for two reasons:
1) It had a “Nominated for the Mann Booker Prize” sticker and I’m a sucker for that.
2) It had an irresistible quote on the cover, “Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcee. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade.”
The book is by Marina Lewycka who was born in a refugee camp at the end of World War II but who has lived in Britain for most of her life. She was the first woman to win the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for a comedic novel. (I love Google!)
When a book has such a powerhouse first line I live in fear that the rest cannot equal it in any way. Fortunately, the book held its course. The story centers on the main character, Nadia’s, father and his aged loved affair with this buxom beauty (Valentina) who is so obviously focused only on his pension it’s amazing that even testosterone could so blind a man – especially an impotent man. This disastrous relationship brings Nadia and her estranged older sister, Vera together. With a mission before them they can set aside an old disagreement about the money from their mother’s will. In the course of visits with lawyers and court proceedings they learn about each other and, in the end, are able to come close to being friends.
The book is rife with misunderstandings and stubbornness – from all characters. I detested Valentina. She was here for money and not much else it seemed. Her presence in England tested Nadia’s liberal sympathies to the max, and conservative Vera used that as an attack tool for quite a while. She tested MY liberal sympathies as well, and I found myself cheering for her deportation back to the concrete apartments of Ukraine.
Under all of the bosom waving of Valentina and hacking, coughing, and defecating of the father there are stories of the horrors of refugee camps, war, nations falling, families being separated. It reaches as far back as a famine caused by the Soviet industrialization program where collective farming was supposed to become the norm.
So what’s the deal with the tractors? Nadia’s father is an engineer and as he deals with crazy Valentina and his protective daughters he writes a short history of the tractor and its developments. These sections of the book frustrated me at first but then I found them surprisingly interesting.
Last weekend I met a young lady from Belarus. We talked a bit about this book and she said that many different tractor functions and engineering feats came out of Belarus rather than Ukraine. I will defer to the author here since she did the research and the young lady I met is a jeweler. But the encounter highlighted something I did not know – people from that part of the world are very defensive about their tractors!!
Lewycka’s book, her debut novel, is well worth reading. It’s fun and heartfelt and exciting. I recommend it.