A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka (Penguin)

Not the most eye-catching title, one wouldn’t have thought. You can imagine the marketing department at Penguin shaking their coiffured ponytails. It’s a novel, for heaven’s sake, not a history. And it’s not about tractors, not really. And it’s written in English. And it’s not set in the Ukraine. Not really.

This is the story of an eccentric old widower living alone in England who, to the consternation of his middle-aged daughters, announces he is going to marry a glamorous woman a decade or two younger than they are. (“Golden hair. Charming eyes. Superior breasts. When you see her, you will understand.”) The daughters understand, all right, and they react the way children always do when their parents begin acting strangely – with fear, compassion and barely veiled hostility. 

Their hostility is more than justified by the arrival of Valentina, a Ukrainian gold-digger whose love for the old man is about as genuine as her breasts. Sly, capricious, charming, and bullying when the charm fails, Valentina steals the show, and pretty much everything else she can lay her hands on. The old man is by turns entranced and terrified. The daughters are helpless and furious.

The novel traces the trajectory of the clearly doomed marriage, with its minor assaults, humiliations, court appearances and short-lived reconciliations. It also traces the progress of the book the old man, a retired engineer, is writing in the midst of this marital melée, a book about tractors. He writes it in Ukrainian, his native language – for he too once made the journey from the Ukraine to England, after the Second World War.

Bit by bit the story reveals what happened in the Ukraine before the war, where in one, catastrophic year, 1932–33, Stalin killed between seven and ten million people through deliberate starvation. In the war itself, more than twenty million Russians died. Such numbers are incomprehensible, and novelist Marina Lewycka does what good novelists do: she shows us the universal through the particular, the sufferings of one man and his family. What they did to survive isn’t heroic. As the old man says to his younger daughter towards the end of the book, it’s just survival – but “to survive is to win”.

It’s the darkest and saddest of stories, but the contemporary social comedy proves, oddly enough, the ideal vehicle to carry it. Title not withstanding, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian has just been longlisted for the Man-Booker Prize. It’s a first novel, written with the casualness, assurance and flair of a writer with a shelfload of novels behind her. A shelfload in front of her, too.

Christchurch Press

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