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Tragi-comic 2nd novel by award winning author of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
Two Caravans - Marina Lewycka
Member Name: sonic0209
Two Caravans - Marina Lewycka
Advantages: Funny, sinister, engaging
Disadvantages: Some of the plot is a bit contrived
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 Lewycka’s 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 girl’s 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 miner’s 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, Yola’s 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 naďve 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 there’s 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 farmer’s 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 farmer’s 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 can’t 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 Vulk’s 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 it’ll 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 Tomasz’s 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 I’ve read of the book. I actually think Irina is quite believable as a teenager stepping into the unknown, naďve and quite obsessed with falling in love: ‘English men are supposed to be incredibly romantic. There’s a famous folk-legend of a man who braves death and climbs through his lady’s bedroom window just to bring her a box of chocolates’. Andriy is a hormonal, moody young man (who wouldn’t be in this situation), still angry about his father’s 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 Irina’s 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 Irina’s 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, it’s an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.
• Hardcover: 320 pages
• Publisher: Fig Tree (29 Mar 2007)
• Language English
• ISBN: 0670916374
Summary: Thoughtful and light hearted, funny and serious all at the same time