Book Review of “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian” by Marina Lewycka.
Nicolai is an 86-year-old immigrant from the Ukraine, living in Peterborough, England, who has been a widower for about two years. The loss of his wife was a blow to him, but he has begun coping. One way is by writing his book – A Short History of Tractors. He’s writing it in Ukrainian, of course, but he’s also translating it into English. In fact, everything seemed to be going fine until he told his two daughters, Nadezhada and Vera, that he was getting married to a woman more than half his age and hardly knows, who is on her way back to England with her young son. This isn’t a crime, especially with life so difficult in the Ukraine and if her son really is the genius his mother makes him out to be, a superior education in England is something any mother would want. Finally, having someone around to care for an aging parent can’t be so horrid. It seems there should have been few objections from his daughters. Everything will be fine, right? Well, not with a woman like Valentina, it won’t!
This is how the book “A Short History of the Tractor in Ukrainian” begins and I can assure you, from there on in, reading this book will be nothing short of a bumpy ride, but one you will enjoy from start to finish. As you can already see from the above, despite the title, this book isn’t a dry, boring, non-fiction account of the history of tractors (although some of that is included). It’s more like the history of a family for which some plowing up of the surface is required in order to get to the rich, fertile truths beneath. This also isn’t a plodding family epic that spans generations. It is an account of a short period in one family’s life that allows its youngest member to look into their hidden past. We all know that when things don’t go the way we expect them to, we often look to the past to see if it holds insights or answers to today’s problems.
Nor should you judge this book by its cover, with quotes on both sides saying how funny this book is. Yes, there are some humorous parts, and many that will make you giggle and guffaw. However, this isn’t your usual light, quick read; you’ll want to concentrate on the complex family relationships and creative scheming of Valentina. This is in its favor, not to its detriment, because the conflict and weight helps make the funnier parts all that more enjoyable.
Lewycka gives us this by using a journal/diary style narrated by the daughter Nadezhada (sometimes referred to as Nadia). This gives it a comedic autobiographical feel, perhaps of something that happened to Lewycka herself, or something she witnessed during her previous work in the field of social welfare – a profession she shares with Nadia. Lewycka is therefore able to give her book a more analytical and historical feel to it than your usual self-centered diary. Nadia is looking for a solution to the problem with her father, hoping to find out why her relationship with her big sister is so problematic relationship, and gain some insight into the family’s history she was too young to understand, or not yet around to witness.
Because of this personal connection, the characters here are vividly drawn and we find ourselves relating to them in a very real way. The people in this book are very much like those people we know in real life – no one is perfect, nothing is simply black or white, things are subtle even when they’re being obvious. This is probably why I believe Lewycka drew from her own experience, since very few budding novelists can evoke such complexity of emotion with their characters. Of course, she could just be a literary genius who has been hiding under her non-fiction works for all these years, but that is doubtful. This is the book that had me waiting in the wings for her subsequent novels, and that is as a high recommendation as the full five stars I’ve given it.
You can buy this book (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository, WHSmith, Waterstones, Foyles, iTunes (iBook), eBooks.com, Kobo (Walmart) eBooks, new or used from Alibris or Better World Books, or from an IndieBound store near you. (This is a revised version of the review that originally appeared on the now defunct Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)