I picked up this book because it looked quaint. It has a quaint cover and a title in the style of “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”, or “The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul”. You know, that “Something something in/of/around (insert Eastern European/Middle Eastern location here)” style. Picking it up, I also kind of liked the way the cover felt; that nice almost gritty texture some novels have. This is the first of a number of immigration-themed novels I’ve read in the last couple of months, and probably my least favourite.
“A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian” by Marina Lewycka professes to be a hilarious story about two sisters aghast at their octogenarian father’s decision to marry the young, brash and sexy Valentina. They are convinced this woman is a gold digger, using her ample charms and common Ukrainian heritage to prey on their father. However, instead of lust, Valentina brings abuse, neglect and boil-in-the-bag dinners. The sisters, already engaged in a feud between themselves, put aside their own dispute and team up to try to put a stop to the relationship.
I can see what Lewycka is trying to do. She draws on her own experiences both as a Ukrainian immigrant herself and her work in the field of aged care to posit an amusing, ridiculous story about a bumbling elderly man. Unfortunately, I think she falls rather wide of the mark. Instead of being funny, this story was to me actually exceptionally sad. It is a tale of elderly abuse, intergenerational trauma and the effects of war on children. Every hysterical exclamation of dialogue, every glib observation just seems to be an attempt trivialise or whitewash the issues at hand, and, in turn, the experiences and struggles of the characters.
The part I liked the best was probably the excerpts of the father’s book on tractors in the Ukraine. The flashbacks to the wartime were also interesting, but couched in so much more suspense and significance than they probably warrant, you find yourself feeling like you never get that big revelation the author was promising you. In the present time however, the family and the interloper are all such caricatures it is really hard to take them, or the book as a whole, seriously.