Newest Review: ... trying to remember who everyone is (particularly since many of the characters have names unfamiliar to the English eye/ear). On t... more
Two Caravans, Four Stars
Two Caravans - Marina Lewycka
Member Name: SWSt
Two Caravans - Marina Lewycka
Advantages: Touching and surprisingly funny given the bleak subject matter
Disadvantages: Some characters get a little lost; a few overly convenient plot coincidences
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
Summary: A worthy follow up to A Short History of Tractors