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Two Caravans is the second novel by Marina Lewycka who wrote the rather-dull-sounding-but-actually-rather-good A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. Her follow up focuses on the plight of a group of illegal immigrant workers in the UK, forced to do menial tasks for little pay and often exploited by unscrupulous employers and "agents" who take a massive cut of any of their earnings.
In particular, Two Caravans tells the story of Irina, an attractive young Ukrainian girl, just arrived in the UK and Andriy, also a Ukrainian, but with a very different background to Irina. Needless to say, there is a mutual attraction there, although each finds the other maddening. Beefing up this (un)happy band are Tomasz and Yola (two Poles), Chinese Girl A and Chinese Girl B (so known because no-one can pronounce their real names) and Emanual from Malawi. When Irina is kidnapped by wannabe gangster Vulk, the others set off to rescue her.
It's fair to say that Two Caravans is perhaps not quite as immediately accessible as A Short History... and also that it takes a little longer to get going. This is partly because it introduces far more characters in a far shorter time. A Short History... only featured a handful of characters, allowing the reader to gradually get to grips with who was who. Here, Lewycka introduces most of the key players within about the first dozen. This can lead to you feeling a little overwhelmed, trying to remember who everyone is (particularly since many of the characters have names unfamiliar to the English eye/ear). On the evidence of the opening 30 pages, I feared I was not going to enjoy Two Caravans.
Thankfully, after that initial hump, the early fears soon evaporated. Lewycka has a real eye for capturing human nature and writing realistically about the way people behave and talk to each other. The characters all interact convincingly and turn out to be a real highlight. By presenting such realistic, likeable characters, the reader invests in their fate and becomes very concerned for their safety and future prospects.
Lewycka does sometimes seem to have bitten off more than she can chew by introducing so many characters. She doesn't always appear to know what to do with them all, so some are better defined than others and have more impact. Equally, in order to free up time and space to focus in on certain characters at certain times, Lewycka also uses a few narrative cheats to split them up into smaller groups. I don't necessarily have a problem with this, but it was a little overused and sometimes the ways characters were reunited was unconvincing, relying on unlikely coincidences to get everyone back in the same place at the same time.
Two Caravans is certainly a lot darker than A Short History... Some of the passages highlighting the atrocious way immigrant workers are treated make for uncomfortable reading. Others are dark and genuinely disturbing in different ways (undertones of violence, for example), whilst some are just outright emotional and moving to the point of tears.
Lewycka shows a real ability to manipulate the reader (in a good way!), sending them on a rollercoaster ride of emotions. One minute you will be elated that something positive has happened to the group; the next despairing, as they are once more plunged into abject poverty and appalling conditions. There are heart-warming moments when complete strangers perform random acts of kindness that restore your faith in humanity, followed by horrible ones where unprovoked violence reveals its seedier side.
All this is laced throughout with a jet black humour which lightens the tone just enough to stop Two Caravans from every becoming too bleak. Sometimes this humour is revealed through the bickering of the protagonists or through misunderstandings caused by language barriers. I particularly liked the fact that Emanuel thought Tomasz's name was Toe Mash and that Andriy thought Emanuel was obsessed with facts about canals, when in reality it was Carnal Knowledge that interested him!. Whilst it's never (and is not intended to be) laugh out loud funny, Two Caravans will often make you smile, whilst also making you think about the absurdity of language and the cultural barriers we build up around ourselves.
Lewycka has a very readable style and is one of those authors who can find just the right words to give an otherwise ordinary scene a slightly quirky feel. She has that rare ability to turn an unfunny situation (sometimes a downright tragic one) into something amusing or heart-warming. Her narrative flows effortlessly and once you have got the cast of characters established in your mind, it proves to be highly readable. I did initially have some concerns about the structure of the book. Lewycka likes to write in very long chapters (most are between 50-80 pages) which doesn't lend itself to reading the odd bit when you have a few spare moments. In fact, first looks can be deceiving, because whilst chapters certainly are long, they are broken down into discreet sections which are often just a couple of pages or less.
It soon became clear that Lewycka was doing something right when I found that I couldn't stop reading it. I read the whole thing (320 pages) in less than two days - not bad going since I only got the chance to steal half an hour or so here and there to read it.
Two Caravans is one of those books which at one point achieved "must read" status and loads of people bought a copy. It soon faded from the "fashionable" reading scene which is a bonus if you've not yet read it because copies are now dirt cheap from in charity or second hand bookshops. If you've not yet read it, do yourself a favour and grab yourself a copy.
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012
I am not sure how I came to have a copy of Two Caravans on my bookshelf but whilst packing for my holiday recently I saw the descriptions "Hilarious" and "funny and charming romp" on the cover and popped it in my suitcase thinking it would make a light-hearted holiday read.
As I said I wasn't sure how I came to have a copy (must have been in a pile from a friend) as I did not enjoy Marina Lewyckas first novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. However I decided to give the author another try and these books do have the advantage of having distinctive covers in beige, red and green and so are very memorable and attractive.
The story starts with us meeting a group of immigrant workers from several disadvantaged countries who are trying to make money here by strawberry picking. They are living a bizarrely attractive life in two caravans in the peaceful Kent countryside and seem to be generally happy with their existence, although they are an eclectic mix they seem to have formed some good friendships. However all good things must come to an end and the relationship between the farmer and the supervisor Yola leads to an explosive situation which changes everyone's circumstances overnight.
Suddenly the motley band are on the road looking for new opportunities in this country of promise. However with little money, no papers and a poor command of the language their hopes for a better life seem to be bound for disappointment. The story follows their journey across the country as each tries to find the best situation for themselves, be it returning home, heading for pastures new or trying to establish themselves in England.
Two Caravans is written in several contrasting styles. Irina is written in the first person, most of the rest of the story is written in the third person and then every now and again Dogs thought get written in capital letters with no punctuation. The contrasting styles produced interesting reading but I found the Dog parts irritating, I am not a fan of anthropomorphism at the best of times and so I am really not interested in the anticipated thoughts of a dog even when they related to the story. A lot of the text is written as dialogue which does require some concentration to follow what is happening as the words and spellings try to show the accents and dialects of the workers.
The basis of this book is the desire of migrant workers to improve their lives and the routes they may take as well as the comradeship and love they may find on the way. Unfortunately for many people entering this country, particularly those entering illegally there are many people reading to exploit and terrorise them. These aspects are well covered in this book and the complex issues surrounding these people's situations were well explored and I found this aspect interesting and thought-provoking, especially with regards to EU and non-EU citizens.
Two Caravans is described as a funny book but here I would have to disagree. A couple of the characters are mildly amusing and their ill-fated romance is entertaining but the comic element is limited really to their misinterpretations of situations and relationships. Unfortunately I didn't find reading about genuine but naive people being exploited and bullied very amusing. Also, at one point, several of the group end up working at a chicken factory, the author gives graphic details of the appalling conditions the animals are kept in and the inhumane way they are treated. I have read about these practices before and find them sickening and certainly did not add anything of a comic nature to the story.
Some readers will find this mix of humour and serious issues unusual and interesting. I think that I am unusual in that I took the whole matter too seriously and felt that making light of these peoples situation is demeaning whereas actually I am sure it has been written to bring these matters to the forefront and to demonstrate to us all what is happening around us. The author has a Ukrainian background and obviously has a good understanding of the difficulties faced by the foreign workforce. I think I would actually prefer a book which explores these issues more as I found them interesting.
Overall Two Caravans did not make me any more inclined to read any more books by this author, they obviously just don't appeal to me although I know many people who really like them. I find the issues the author dealt with very interesting and would have enjoyed the book more without the efforts to make it light-hearted. Although this is a relatively short book at just over 300 pages it took me a long time to read as I just couldn't get into the story and as it is written in small sections there was little flow.
If you read "Tractors" and enjoyed it then this will probably be one you enjoy too but if "Tractors" wasn't your thing I suggest you give this one a miss as well.
I have been reading this book aloud to two people - a blind lady I support and my boyfriend. I strongly believe that is a book that needs to be spoken out loud, so that the different voices can be heard. I actually think that this is one of the best books I have read, though I admit I haven't yet read "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian" also by Marina Lewycka, which other reviewers have said they read first and were disappointed by this book in comparison.
Many people have found the voice of Dog annoying, but I believe that the author intended Dog's voice to be a stepping stone to that of the chickens in the factory farm. It left me thinking, what would the chickens say if we could interpret their squawks and screams? We are used to seeing images of factory chickens, but it is easy to be so horrified that we cut off emotionally and then we cannot really think about what to do about it. Lweycka uses humour and little breaks in the plotline to allow the reality of the chicken factory to settle in. The reader is reminded that animals, of course, are sentient beings and we recognise, of course, that this situation is deeply, morally wrong. We are told that the chickens are being prepared for a supermarket BOGOF offer and it does not take much to connect the dots. When we buy chicken, even if it has a nice name - in this case the pleasing sounding "Buttercup Meadow Farmfresh Poultry" - we are getting a chicken or pieces of a chicken that has been tortured for the whole of its short life, burning in excrement, stressed, stuffed cheek-to-jowl with other chickens, stuffed full of food and antibiotics to the point where it cannot well support its own weight.
I assure you that while I aim to buy Free Range, I have not always done so. After all, you can sometimes buy a whole chicken for £2. To quote Ciocia Yola (admiring the man with calves like marrows) "Well, in this situation, what woman would not?" After reading this, I cannot look at the chickens in the supermarket in quite the same way again, even the cheapest ones seem to be too high a cost to me. Poor chickens.
Back to Dog and to respond to those who do not see his purpose within the story. It is clear to me that Dog, as well as being the stepping stone to our connection with the poor chickens, is also the voice of freedom. While the humans are bound by the chains of so-called 'civilisation' and must work hard for their money (and see little of it unless they are willing to sacrfice their morals in some way), dog is a pure voice. He does what he wants, when he wants and he shows kindness and compassion for the immigrants that he attaches himself to. Even Dog has his opinions, though these are based mainly on smell and doggy values/ preferences. Dog is self-sufficient. He is an excellent hunter and catches (free-range) birds and rabbits whenever he likes. He plays when he likes and he sleeps deeply and contently whenever he likes, unlike some of the humans.
I think that this is a novel that asks the reader to think deeply about their morals, but does this through plenty of humour and character interest.
If you read this story, do yourself a favour and speak the words out loud. Have a go at speaking the different accents and get to grips with 'being' the different characters within the story. See what it feels like to play Vulk who is big and dumb and dangerous, or Neil, the teenager at the chicken factory who is trying oh-so-hard to learn how to smoke properly.
Oh, one more thing, does anyone else worry about what happened to the so-called Chinese girls when they reached Amsterdam? Because the chance that they actually have a placement there as nannies is slim to none, right? Strangely, it doesn't dawn on any of the other characters, even when they gain a little more awareness, that Chinese Girl 1 & 2 might be in danger and so no one comes to their rescue. Or maybe I have underestimated these women - maybe they are smart enough to escape or else see prostitution as a way of making lots of money quickly so they can soon have the lives they dream of?
This is a funny, sad and charming story, littered with the author's very keen insights into the world of the strawberry picker community she writes about.
The tale unfolds on a strawberry farm in Kent and the workers are migrant fruit pickers from a number of different countries who are mostly looking for a new life and an improved lifestyle.
The men live in one caravan and the women live in another and the whole community is literally dumped in the middle of a field. There is Andriy who is a miner's son from the old Ukraine and Irina from the new. Both are the same nationality but they are suspicious of each other.
Then there are Tomasz and Yola from Poland, two Chinese girls who don't always understand what's going on and Emanuel an immigrant from Malawi. They all think they have finally hit the jackpot and come to England to partake of the benefits on offer.
The Russian gangster types like Vulk terrorise the community and England turns out to be quite a disappointment. Irina is kidnapped by the Russian and Andriy 'gets on his white charger' and rushes to save her.
Marina Lewycka was born in a German refugee camp. Her parents were Ukrainian and she grew up in England after the war. Her first novel, 'A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian' was a resounding success. It was an outstanding piece of comic fiction and Two Caravans is just as good, if not better.
There are some truly hilarious moments in this book and one of my favourites is when the two Chinese girls notice the red dot in the centre of the shopkeeper's forehead and conclude that it is gunshot wound. This kind of humour runs right through the book but giving any more examples will spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it.
I would recommend this book to any adult readers. I don't think the humour would be appreciated by older teenagers although I suppose there will be exceptions. This is relaxing reading that takes the reader away to another world. Great for whiling away a few hours, (and don't forget to read Tractors too.)
I received the book "Two Caravans" by Marina Lewycka as a book swap from the site readitswapit.co.uk. I had seen the book on their top 50 book lists and although not really knowing a lot about the story was keen to read it and find out more. The author has also written "A short history of tractors in Ukrainian" which was very popular and shortlisted for the Orange prize.
The story is fictional and the two caravans in the title of the book refer to two caravans of strawberry pickers working in the south of England. One caravan is the female workers and the other caravan is the male workers. They are immigrant workers who have come from various countries including Ukraine, China and Malawi and have found work as strawberry pickers.
The story begins with an arrival of a new strawberry picker who is Irina and who will end up being one of the main characters in the book. She has come to the UK from Ukraine to see a bit of the world and to improve her English. Her views of England are based on books and she is in for a bit of a shock as she discovers the hardships of working for little money. She also lands herself in even bigger trouble by attracting the attentions of the rather slimy Vulk who is a bit of a gangster. Irinas arrival sparks some interest in Andriy who is also from Ukraine and he looks out for her. There is also Yola the Polish woman who is the self-appointed supervisor of the team and who comes every year to earn money to take back home. There is also Emanuel a sweet but rather naïve young man from Malawi who has come in search of his sister but cannot find her.
The story looks at their relationships with each other, why they came to pick strawberries and tells of what happens to each of them.
I found this book to be a really interesting read full of surprises. The author tells the story from the different characters perspectives so they each have an opportunity to narrate the tale from their perspective. This is quite interesting but at times it can be hard to work out who is speaking as the author keeps jumping from one character to another.
The writing style is also a little strange at times because it is written exactly how the author imagines the characters to speak in their attempts to speak English. For some characters this is fine as they speak good English in others the words are spelt wrongly to get you to imagine the accent.
Another rather weird thing is a dog appears in the story and he also narrates the story from his point of view. Now I like dogs but having a dog narrating the story in dog language in block capitals and without proper sentences (did this dog not go to school!) saying "I AM DOG I AM GOOD DOG I SIT WITH MY MAN I EAT DOG MEAT MAN EATS MAN FOOD" well to me its just plain weird and I don't think adds anything to the story.
The story can be quite funny at times especially with Emanuels misinterpretation of certain words and the confusion that brings. However at times the story changes completely and can be quite dark. There is an episode in a chicken factory that I found particularly repulsive and also upsetting. The author goes into great detail about what happens there, she obviously had researched the topic well and it doesn't make for a very light-hearted read.
The author really tackles some major issues, you tend to think that exploitation of workers occurs in factories in India not in strawberry fields or chicken factories in England. The author also looks briefly at prostitution and how women can be forced into this. Along with these issues it is also a tale of love, of hope and of looking for a brighter future. Emanuel is probably the character that embodies the hope for a brighter future and the belief in the good of people. His story is really about these things.
I found it an interesting book about a topic that I knew nothing about but which although a fictional tale did open my eyes to some of the issues that immigrant workers face and the exploitation that can occur. It was a different read to my usual books and I am glad I read it but probably wouldn't rush out and read another of hers.
Priced in Amazon currently at £5.59
Marina Lewycka's second novel "Two Caravans" is a classic romantic comedy, which means the plot can be summed up as: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. In this instance, there's a slight nod to a twist on "Pride & Prejudice" with the boy Andrei being from a rural, lower-class family and the girl Elena being from the urban middle-class. That these characters are all migrant workers (one from Africa, two from China and the rest from non-EU Eastern Europe, with our heroes coming from the Ukraine), who have come to England to pick strawberries, is Lewycka's own distinctive spin.
With this slightly unique set up, and having experienced Lewycka's first novel with great satisfaction, I was fairly hopeful that this novel would be equally as enjoyable, despite it's less than rave reviews. With that in mind, I do have to say I wasn't terribly disappointed, but I cannot say that the critics of this book were far off the mark. "Two Caravans", therefore, is basically what one often observes with an author's second outing, especially after their debut novel is such a hit. That is, it isn't quite up to snuff. That said, there isn't all that much that is terribly wrong with this book, either.
Getting the biggest problem out of the way, I have to admit that I was very disconcerted to find that Lewycka resorted to a famous literary blunder under the guise of "aren't I clever/creative". I'm talking about writing a realistic story which includes using a first-person point of view from either an animal or inanimate object. In this case, we get "dog" (and yes, I mean an animal) voicing its observations and feelings - carefully set apart by paragraphs of all caps, printed in comic sans font. It isn't her fault, really. Greater and/or more famous writers than Marina have fallen into this pitfall - not the least of which was Joanne Harris. While this is fine if you're writing "Watership Down" or "I, Robot", there really is no place for something like this in a book of this genre. Yes, there are stories that mix reality with certain magical qualities, but this isn't one of them. The problem is, you can't actually ignore all the dog's thoughts, since much of what goes on in its head gives us important insights into parts of the story line. Still, I think this information could have been imparted in a less foolish way.
However, this was probably more difficult to overcome considering how the book was composed. That being, we get a jumble of first-person narratives - mostly from our main characters as well as a couple others, and of course, "dog". Had Lewycka used third person, this could easily have been avoided. But apparently, Marina likes to get into the heads of her characters - probably because she's first and foremost a sociologist by profession. I can live with that, but personally, I think this point-of-view is overrated and frankly, extremely overused. That doesn't mean that she fails in helping us become empathetic with her characters, because this is one of her strongest points. Moreover, this type of jumping back and forth can sometimes be confusing to the reader, if we aren't always sure who is narrating what. Marina solves this problem by making sure that each speaker has a distinctive enough voice - either by the style the person uses, or by changing certain physical aspects of the writing (for instance, one country would spell the Andre as Andrei, while another spells it Andrey, and I already told you how the dog's thoughts are highlighted). This makes for a very casual style in her writing - something that's very familiar feeling, if a touch voyeuristic - as if we're reading someone's diary. This makes for a read that intrigues us but isn't overly heavy, even when our heroes are facing some kind of danger.
She also has a way of pulling us into the story and these people's lives, making us feel we really care about what happens to them. That is essential for any novel and in that light, this book succeeds very nicely indeed. Here she investigates the various types of dreams these people have for themselves - both financially and emotionally, and how they go about chasing them, even when obstacles are placed in their paths. Throughout the story, we feel how these people change and adapt to their circumstances, as well as how they learn about themselves and the people they've been thrown together with. What's more, even the protagonists are well rounded, as are the more minor characters here. And while we may have our doubts regarding what is realistic and what is not about their tales and goals, we easily recognize the human conditions presented. Each person you 'meet' here is a true individual, and there's no way you'll confuse who is what, they are so carefully drawn. So at least Lewycka hasn't lost her touch for building a cast of believable people, around which she builds her tale.
This brings me, of course, to how she builds the plot, from the introduction, to the climax and conclusion. I have to say that while her characters are both interesting and varied, the one thing she's really good at is putting them into situations that are believable, realistic as well as freshly idiosyncratic. This, of course, sets up the comic aspects of this story, which though funny, aren't what I would call hilarious. Still, I'm sure the trials and tribulations of migrant workers in the UK certainly isn't a topic that happens often in fiction. As she gives us this special setting, we are also certain that nothing that these people go through is exaggerated, is a true talent. I tend to believe that as a sociologist (or in doing social work) she may actually have come in contact with just such real people during her career. In this, it surely feels that she is doing what all writers must do - and that is "write what you know". This is to say that while we're pulled in firstly by the characters, Lewycka knows how to manipulate them through the plot twists to keep us turning pages until the very end, which is also in her favour.
But as a whole, I have to say that while there is much to like in this book, I'm afraid that "Two Caravans" falls short of Marina's very special debut novel "A Short History of the Tractor in Ukrainian". We can enjoy and believe in the characters on the whole (aside from that dog business), the settings are interesting and not overly described, and the situations are generally unfamiliar to us, making us curious to see what happens. And yet, while it is still a fun and easy read, it doesn't really grab us as being something that has any huge impact on us. There are no deep insights into human nature here, nothing that strikes us as amazing prose and nothing that will have us laughing out loud. And while saying that "Two Caravans" is just an amusing novel isn't an insult, it also isn't very high praise either. So after much debate, I think I'll still recommend this book for a light summer read, but I can't give it more than three stars out of five. I can only hope that Lewycka's next novel sees a return to the quality we saw in her debut novel.
Thanks for reading!
Davida Chazan © January 2009
This book is available in paperback from Amazon new for £5.59 or through their marketplace from 1p.
In the USA this book is known as "The Strawberry Pickers".
Information about the author is available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marina_Lewycka
With the subject of immigration dominating the news at the moment, Marina Lewyckas Two Caravans could hardly be more topical. The book tells the story of a group of immigrants who, at the beginning of the novel, find themselves crammed into two tiny caravans at a strawberry farm in Kent. The story is told through a succession of first person narratives from the main characters and also Dog, a stray dog who attaches himself to the motley band of itinerant workers.
I had high hopes for Two Caravans having read and enjoyed the authors debut novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. I was also interested in how the sensitive subject of immigration would be handled. However, I found Two Caravans to be full of flaws, not merely in the subject matter but also the means the author uses to tell the story.
Clearly Marina Lewycka has done her research; the variety of nationalities and backgrounds that make up her gang of migrants reminds the reader that even within the migrant community there is a sense of hierarchy with legality, ethnic origin and even sub-national origin all making up a diverse collection of workers that is often erroneously regarded as the same by outsiders. In Two Caravans we have the Poles who we are constantly reminded are legal, two Chinese girls from contrasting backgrounds, two young Ukrainians one from a middle class background and a supporter of the Orange Revolution, the other a former miner from the industrial and pro-Russian eastern region of the country, a Moldovan who fled Transdniestr just after the region declared its independence from the rest of the country and a young African Emmanuel from Malawi who has come in search of sister, a nurse.
As the story progresses the gang find themselves split up as they go wherever they must to find work; Tomek spends twelve hour days rounding up overweight chickens whose legs are so fragile they snap as soon as he touches them while Marta and Yola work on a production line grading and packing the meat. Everywhere they go the meagre wages are subject to ridiculous deductions for expenses for cramped and damp accommodation, for cheap and unhealthy food, for work clothes, for transport, and so it goes on.
I found it very easy to like the group of immigrant workers but it might be too much to expect the reader to believe that these people who have been thrown together in such circumstances would do so much to help each other. Not all the characters are so pleasant, of course. The Moldovan, Vitaly, leaves the group and re-appears as a recruitment consultant trying to fix up his former friends with what he tries to tell them are excellent job opportunities. Then there is Vulk; his nationality is never actually revealed but he is one of those shaven-headed Balkan types, a stereotypical trafficker of people, in particular of young women, who conducts his business in a smattering of all European languages. I couldnt really get to grips with this character; in some respects the way the author has painted him is a triumph lecherous, smelly, sweaty, eating chips then wiping his greasy fingers on his clothes and then its all ruined with silly slapstick moments that detract from this sinister and brutal image that has just been evoked. Is he a comical or a malevolent character? Who knows, but I do think he should be one or the other being both does not work.
There are other moments that do not sit comfortably with the rest of the story; an horrific incident at the chicken plant leads to a wildcat strike during which Yola, the middle-aged sex mad Polish lady is fixated on the hairy legs of the agent provocateur who hangs around the factory trying to persuade the workers to unionise. Black humour or just out of place?
Towards the end of the book, just when it seems the loose ends should start to be tied up, a new set of characters appear with a completely different background. You could argue that there is a loose connection between illegal immigrant workers and a gang of eco warriors both on the margins of society but it seems much too late in the novel to bring in global warming, use of green belt land and associated environmental issues. Surely one hot topic is enough for any novel anyway?
To some degree I enjoyed the use of first person narration to tell the story, after all the characters do not necessarily share the same viewpoint just because they are all immigrants. However, sometimes their accounts overlapped too much so the story was too repetitive. Worst of all were the sections of narration from the dog, written in the most tedious and annoying way and adding next to nothing to the telling of the story.
I was also annoyed by the daft pidgin English that was used for the conversations between the immigrants. Even when people of the same nationality are talking to each other they do so in this awful, cringeworthy manner that seemed to me to be quite condescending and perhaps a little insulting. Does Marina Lewycka think us so dim that we cant differentiate between characters unless they have silly accents? Furthermore, the entire story of the characters is based on a supposed mystery that is actually something so obvious that the author runs the risk of the reader feeling only annoyance rather than empathy for this individual.
There were some good points. One is Marina Lewycka ability to set the scene and the way she describes the mayhem in the chicken farm is a good example. You can almost smell the intense odours of the barn and sense Tomeks shock when he goes inside to see thousands of chickens crammed in together, the weakest being trampled underfoot. I also loved the descriptions of the meals Marta cooks for the gang from ingredients foraged from the countryside.
On the occasions when the humour does not undermine some more serious point it is, admittedly, very funny. My favourite one liner was when one more person was crammed into the caravan and Emmanuel mentions a Malawian saying along the lines of you cant squeeze two fingers into one nostril.
Overall I felt that a really good opportunity had been missed to lift the curtain on what life is like for people who come to Britain seeking work and how many people are not only exploited but end up in conditions far worse than those they have left behind. The positive side to immigration was not touched on at all; there were no success stories to speak of, only negatives on the part of the employers and the employees. Prostitution is hinted at here and there throughout the story until right at the end it appears again in a more sinister way but by this point there is no time to explore the subject more fully.
If Two Caravans was an attempt to make people aware of the problems facing immigrants it fails miserably because it only superficially covers too many aspects of the subject and because it uses comedy at all the wrong moments. Perhaps if this issue was not so important right now it may be easier to forgive its faults and to better appreciate the humour.
Given the runaway success of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, its possible that there was pressure from the publishers for the author to come up with a fairly rapid follow up and maybe even one that would ride on the back of the immigration story. If this is the case, it is a pity that Marina Lewycka has let herself be exploited in this way.
This book was recommended to me when down the pub with three girl (see how young we are!!) friends. Two of the three had read Marina Lewyckas very popular, critically acclaimed and award winning debut novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian and had thoroughly enjoyed it. One of the three had started to read Two Caravans and the rest of us decided that this would be a good first book for a book club (between you and me, this is a means for us to legitimise a regular girls evening down the pub).
Tractors (if I may use this as short hand) has its extraordinary distinctiveness, wit and heart to thank for its success. I expected this and more of Two Caravans given the recommendations and plaudits for the author.
This book is slapstick funny and darkly sinister in turns. It has as its backdrop the very serious issues of immigrant worker exploitation and the deprivation, social and political difficulties of those countries from which the characters originate. In the foreground is a love story that emerges between two Ukrainians from opposite sides of the track as they take a circuitous route across England with adventure and danger never far away.
The two caravans of the title house immigrant workers picking strawberries in the Kent countryside. The cramped and unhygienic conditions in which they work and the outrageous deductions from their paltry wages for expenses are in stark contrast to the summery and scenic surroundings.
We meet: Irina, young and just off the coach from Kiev, naively hoping to meet a romantic Englishman, like Mr Brown from her English language textbooks from school; Andriy, another Ukrainian, a miners son; Tomasz, a Pole with seriously bad smelling feet, a love of poetry and a guitar; Yola, the petite and voluptuous pole who is servicing the farmer for some money on the side; Marta, Yolas religious niece who turns the basic food that they can get hold of into a culinary delight using herbs from the roadside, wild mushrooms and a lot of imagination; Emmanuel, the incredibly naïve and religious not-quite-18 year old from Malawi who is searching for his sister who is somewhere in England; two Chinese girls; Vitaly who manages to turn from humble, but shifty, strawberry picker to cut throat recruitment consultant (representing the shiny new Eastern Europe); and theres Dog, a big black thing of unknown provenance who sticks with Andriy to the bitter end.
They have to leave the strawberry picking in a hurry when the farmers wife runs over her husband on finding out about his arrangement with Yola, but convinces the workers that suspicion will fall on them. At the same time Vulk, the hideous armed gangster who recruited all the workers and has taken a shine to Irina, has come back to find her, looking for sex. Irina runs in one direction, the others take off in the other hitching up one of the caravans to the farmers Land Rover to make their escape.
The rest of the book follows the characters to seedy seaside hostels and an intensive poultry farm as they attempt to make good their hopes to earn a living in England. Gradually their numbers dwindle as they disperse, each looking to make their way through different routes. Andriy cant stop thinking about Irina and worrying about her wellbeing and whereabouts. He returns to the strawberry field and she has slowly made her way back there having jumped from Vulks moving car and hidden in the woods overnight. They then pursue the rest of their journey, leaving Emmanuel in London with the wealthy family of Toby McKenzie, a drop out who he saved from a Malawian prison during his visit to the country on a voluntary assignment, by confessing to the drugs charges of which Toby had been accused. Irina and Andriy have to leave London suddenly, narrowly escaping danger, leaving behind their caravan and heading off to Sheffield, which Andriy paints to Irina as an idyllic city of opportunity on a hill. He visited the city on a miners convention with his father years back and had his first kiss with a young woman who gave him her name and number and he is now going to look her up.
What will happen when they finally make it to Sheffield? Surely itll be a bitter disappointment? How can Andriy possibly hope to meet up with the young girl he kissed so many years ago? Will the spark of attraction between him and Irina overcome their political and social differences?
~~~What did I think?~~~
I did enjoy reading this book. It is humorous and remains compelling as it follows the characters adventures across England.
There are some quite sinister and genuinely scary moments with the quite hideous (yellow teeth, stinking breath, greasy pony tail) Vulk. There are also some pretty disturbing moments, in particular one part of the book that describes Tomaszs time at a poultry farm, which is both depressing and stomach churning. There is a comparison made to the concentration camps of Poland, with Tomasz wondering whether the people living in the neighbouring village knew of the carnage going on so close by.
The book is, however, very humorous, a real mix of slapstick (often ably assisted by Dog) and the more subtle humour of misunderstandings and mistranslation. This mix of light and heavy is sometimes an uneasy combination, particularly in the ludicrous and chaotic scene at the chicken factory where a chicken escapes slaughter and mayhem ensues.
The narrative is interesting, being provided by a number of the individuals in their own style. Irina is always in the first person, like a friend confiding in you, Emmanuel narrates in the form of letters to his lost sister in the most over the top flowery and incorrect English, which is quite funny, but ultimately a bit strange given that he probably wrote to her in their shared mother tongue.. Even Dog get a look in, with his own unique grammar-less style: I AM DOG I AM WET DOG I RUN I PLAY IN WATER WOOF SPLASH RUN IN THIS WATER IS DREAM OF MY PAST-TIME PUPPINESS.
Early on in the book you really do have to concentrate as there are so many characters, all pushing the narrative forward in their own style, to the point where you could (OK, I did) get a bit confused about who is who and what their story/personality is. This becomes neater as the number of characters reduce, but this is not to diminish the importance of each of them. In fact one of the great things about this book is that it gives you the personal history of each of these immigrants from their various backgrounds such that you identify with them and care about them. At a time where emotions about foreign workers is running high and it is so easy to lump them all together in a faceless tabloid style, this is a really important reminder of the inhumanity that can be shown by humans to their fellows. The book is dedicated to the cockle-pickers of Morecambe Bay just to drive this point home. Back to the point I was making about the significance of each of the characters: the two Chinese girls at the strawberry farm are referred to Chinese Girl One and Chinese Girl Two by the others and the language barrier is such that they struggle to get acquainted. When they get to have their voice through a brief stint at narration, we find out that they are from completely different backgrounds, one from China, one from Malaysia, both of them exceedingly bright and academic and both having come to England with the intention of progressing their education through further study.
The two central characters, Irina and Andriy, have been described as anaemic in one review Ive read of the book. I actually think Irina is quite believable as a teenager stepping into the unknown, naïve and quite obsessed with falling in love: English men are supposed to be incredibly romantic. Theres a famous folk-legend of a man who braves death and climbs through his ladys bedroom window just to bring her a box of chocolates. Andriy is a hormonal, moody young man (who wouldnt be in this situation), still angry about his fathers death in a mining accident and feeling guilty that he escaped that same accident.
The plot is at times contrived, particularly the very end, with Dog leading Andriy to Irinas aid in Lassy-style barking, but on the whole it is compelling and makes for an entertaining read. The writing style is also sometimes flawed, like the way that Andriy and Irina talk to each other in this slightly pidgin English, despite the fact that they are probably talking to each other in Ukrainian, also Emmanuel writing to his sister in that horribly over-the-top style of English when this too would have been written in his mother tongue. Still, it is also very interesting the way that the style of narration itself is a means of unravelling the story, particularly in the early and awkward moments of Andriy and Irinas relationship (do they like each other or hate each other?).
I would recommend this book to others. It may not be a great book, but it is a good book. Despite some fairly minor flaws overall, its an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Fig Tree (29 Mar 2007)
In the idyll of the English countryside, on a beautiful summer's evening in a Kent field, and around their two caravans, a little group of strawberry pickers is getting ready to celebrate a birthday. But who picks our strawberries these days? The Ukrainians: Irina, just off the coach from Kiev, and eager to improve her excellent English and find true love with a romantic Englishman; Andriy, the miner's son from the other Ukraine; the Poles: Bob Dylan fan, Tomasz, (whose smelly trainers will soon punish those in the men's caravan), Yola, the petite, voluptuous gangmistress and her religious niece Marta, who finds the wild mushrooms to cook with the sliced loaf; then there is Vitaly, king of the new mobilfon world of the shiny new Eastern Europe; two Chinese girls; Emanuel, the round eyed eighteen-year-old from Malawi, come to England to look for his sister. And although he can't exactly help pick strawberries, there's also the Dog... But these are a group leading dangerous lives - exploitative employers, British regulations and gang masters with guns will all threaten their existence as they take to the caravan road until each of them peels off to find their destiny. Hilarious, gritty, moving, and slapstick by turns, Two Caravans has every bit of the extraordinary distinctiveness and wit and heart that made A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian so successful.