Friday, August 19, 2005

Booker Review: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Marina Lewycka

It is not a good sign when your first thought upon laying a book aside is, well, at least it was a quick read. Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is certainly that. It took me under four hours to get through, and I'm the kind of person who reads every word twice and moves his mouth as he does so. A Short History is not an odd book in itself, but it is an odd book for me to read, and I doubt I'd have gone near it were it not on the Booker longlist. From the quirky title to the cute cover art (with the words "A Novel" helpfully inscribed under the title, lest one think it actually is a history of tractors in Ukrainian), the whole package screams "winsome, quasi-literary rubbish". Thankfully, it's not that bad. Unfortunately, it's also not all that good.

A Short History tells of two middle-aged sisters, whose elderly, widowed father, a Ukrainian émigré who is depicted throughout as a kind of cantakerous idiot savant, enters into a marriage of convenience with a supremely unpleasant Ukrainian woman half his age. While she sets about breaking the old man's heart in pursuit of his (largely non-existant) fortune, the sisters do everything they can to get rid of her, and this forms the core of the novel.

This rather bland story is enlivened by Lewycka's ready, down-to-earth wit, and a smooth, episodic structure. Valiant attempts are made to tie the family's present-day tribulations to Ukraine's often tragic recent history. This can jar: one minute you're smiling over some piece of bubbly bitchiness, the next you're in the Drachensee forced labour camp, and smiling has ceased to be an option. That said, the historical threads do give the novel some depth, and help to cement identity and ideology as its key themes.

Lewycka struggles to flesh out her characters, and this is ultimately what makes A Short History a merely pleasant read, and a baffling choice for the Booker longlist. Of all the dull first-person narrators in history, Lewycka's Nadia would have to be near the top of the table. We learn about her politics, her home life, and we become very familiar with her world-weary wit, but still she fails to ring true as a person. Likewise the other characters, who are really functional creations, there to do a job, rather than to live on the page. Without any sense of the characters as real people (or "real" people, if you prefer, as you probably do if you're the one marking my lit essays), the reader of A Short History has no chance of getting under the book's skin, or vice versa. It becomes literally two-dimensional, existing on the page only, waiting to be skimmed and forgotten. In summary, I can do no better than to quote Andrey Kurkov's review in the Guardian: "Reading this novel gave me the impression that I had read a school textbook on Ukrainian history with one eye on an episode of Coronation Street."

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