A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka

Daddy, don't marry the big-breasted gold-digger
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The Independent Culture

First novels invariably tend towards the autobiographical. So, given that the narrator of Marina Lewycka's debut was born of Ukrainian parents in a refugee camp at the end of the war, as was the author herself, one suspects that a certain amount of personal history has found its way into A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.

Two sisters, Vera and Nadezdha, are appalled when their 84-year-old father decides to remarry - his choice of bride is a blonde, large-breasted Ukrainian gold-digger named Valentina, less than half his age. Valentina turns out to be very bad news indeed, forcing her hapless husband to buy expensive goods he can't afford (including three cars), physically abusing and terrorising him to the extent that he soils his trousers. (Actually, this is something of a habit of his, and one for which he is accorded little sympathy.) Vera and Nadezdha, despite a lifetime's feuding, are forced to present a united front to try and get rid of the ghastly Valentina, either by divorce or deportation. The old man, meanwhile, is busy on his great work, a history of tractors in the Ukraine.

While all this is going forward, the novel also travels backwards, filling in the story of the early years of Nadezdha's parents, delving into the brutal history of the Ukraine. It is salutary to be reminded of the vast crimes committed under Stalin (who even today has his apologists).

A Short History is amiable enough; the authorial voice is distinctive and personal. However, the texture of the writing is rather thin, except for occasional purple passages that could almost be prefaced by anticipatory stars, as in Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm. Moreover, Lewycka has a number of annoying stylistic tricks, such as making comments on the action in parentheses, or using one-line paragraphs to sum up a scene. The effect, sadly, is of over-obviousness; it's like being nudged in the ribs the whole time.

Despite their efforts to help him, both Nadezdha and Vera seem curiously unfond of their father. This is psychologically plausible, and will strike a chord with anyone who has had to deal with a difficult elderly parent. As a slice of family history, this novel rings true. The trouble is that other people's family histories, like other people's dreams, are never as interesting as your own.

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