A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka

New Russia and old farce in Peterborough
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The Independent Culture

Technology rather than ideology may have changed the face of contemporary Eastern Europe. But what really makes the world go round, at least according to first-time novelist Marina Lewycka, are big breasts. This spirited comedy about a displaced Ukrainian family, which this week reached the long-list for the Orange Prize, is set in 1990s Peterborough. It opens with a marriage announcement: the 84-year-old retired draftsman, Nikolai Mayevska, is about to shack up with Valentina, a visa-less divorcée who is less than half his age.

Technology rather than ideology may have changed the face of contemporary Eastern Europe. But what really makes the world go round, at least according to first-time novelist Marina Lewycka, are big breasts. This spirited comedy about a displaced Ukrainian family, which this week reached the long-list for the Orange Prize, is set in 1990s Peterborough. It opens with a marriage announcement: the 84-year-old retired draftsman, Nikolai Mayevska, is about to shack up with Valentina, a visa-less divorcée who is less than half his age.

His two grown-up daughters, Nadezhda and Vera, are not best pleased. The sociology lecturer Nadezhda, in particular, is in a moral bind. A "peace baby" born in Britain at the end of the Second World War, she prides herself on her left-wing credentials and her liberal views on immigration. Those principles look set to be jettisoned in the face of her father's unexpected news.

Marina Lewycka's reworking of an old cliché - an elderly man falls for a gold-digger - ploughs a rich comic furrow. Valentina explodes into Nikolai's life like a vitriolic air-freshener. She brings a "synthetic whiff of New Russia" to his Peterborough pebble-dash, not to mention a pair of "superior Botticellian breasts".

Overnight, Nikolai changes from a cultured emigré (and author of a soon-to-be-completed history of the tractor) into a lovelorn teenager. His daughters, who once sat through his lectures on the New Economic Plan, are suddenly privy to too much information about the state of their father's "squishy squashy" and his preference for "oralsex".

It's only when Valentina starts to fleece Nikolai of his savings and pension (to pay for a "civilised person's" vacuum cleaner and a leather-upholstered car) that Nadezhda and Vera intervene. Nadezhda finds herself, much to her horror, turning into "Mrs Flog-'em-and-send-'em home". Meanwhile, pragmatic Vera gets on the phone to the Home Office.

More than just a jovial farce about assimilation, A Short History Of Tractors in Ukrainian is spliced with family anecdotes and memories of the motherland. Nadezhda remembers her mother's salty vegetable soup and her father's prize-winning eulogy to a hydro-electric power station. More significantly, elder sister Vera comes clean about the family's wartime past, including time spent in a German labour camp.

Despite Lewycka's robust writing, the will-she-won't-she-stay element of Valentina's story is hard to sustain. The family ends up in court, but the outcome is predictable. What keeps Valentina's Carry On-style presence aloft is her memorable use of "DIY" Ukrainian, "No good meanie oralsex maniac husband!" being her usual sign-off to any marital tiff.

By the end, the father-daughter relationship is again centre stage. Geriatric sexuality may now be de rigueur, but as this well-crafted comedy good-naturedly points out, spare a thought for the middle-aged children.

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