A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
By: Marina Lewycka
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
In this comic first novel, two estranged sisters living in England discover that their addled elderly father, a Ukrainian war refugee and expert on tractors, is planning to marry a young, enormous-breasted woman who sees his modest pension as her ticket to capitalist comfort. The sisters put aside their differences, and embark on a spirited campaign to save him from boil-in-the-bag dinners, slovenly housekeeping, and such extravagant purchases as a broken-down Rolls-Royce. In the midst of these machinations—which include long-winded letters to solicitors, venomous gossip, and all-out spying—Lewycka stealthily reveals how the depredations of the past century dictate what a family can bear.
I read this book back in 2009 after learning that it had been longlisted for the Man Booker and I believe the former Orange Prize (now Baileys Women Prize); the title alone was a curious one. I had really enjoyed it then; it seemed especially fitting to read it as I was taking a course in Ukrainian history at the time and understood all of the historical events mentioned throughout the novel. I had been meaning to revisit this novel as I don’t remember much of the story, and had been wanting to put my thoughts down here at my blog somewhere.
Oh gosh, this book is utterly mad, madder than I remember it being. I totally felt for Nadia as she had to deal with her father’s…addledness (yes, that’s a good word to describe him, haha)…her sister’s sense of self-importance, valentina and her own brand of craziness (she’s so frustrating, I felt so sorry for her teenage son). I also forgot how bitter the estrangeness was between the sisters Vera and Nadia; the absolute differences, I remembered, but it’s intriguing and sad how deep the divide is between them. If it wasn’t for their father’s crazy idea to marry a woman many, many years younger than him, I wonder if the sisters would ever speak to each other again. Their journey towards some sort of understanding with each other was an interesting one, not to mention an ongoing process that continues long after the last page.
But the rest of the book is pretty mad from start to finish. Their father really does seem to draw crazy situations to him, from giving in to all of Valentina’s demands (even as it drains him of his pension funds) to psychiatric evaluations and endless court appearances. Is he mad or is he just eccentric? seems to be the running question throughout the book but there’s no doubt that his experiences in Ukraine greatly affected and informs his character. I felt so bad for their father because despite of everything, he is an old man who is also experiencing the effects of his age.
I love the interweave of Nadia and Vera’s parents’ histories, and their family history in general, what they endured under Soviet times before escaping to the United Kingdom. It’s also an interesting contrast to Nadia’s experiences growing up; unlike the rest of her family, she was born after their relocation so she did not experience the things they did, and thus the person she’s grown up to be is quite different from the rest of her family. This time around I thought those themes took a very large prominence, that of lived experiences and childhood experiences informing the people these characters came to be. But it’s also curious how much Nadia was left in the dark about her family’s experiences under Soviet Ukraine, coming out only as she and her sister are trying to help their father out of his crazy situation. As an aside, for some reason I thought this novel was set in our time, but given the year that Vera was born, it made sense that this novel is set in the 1980s (I don’t know how I missed that detail :3).
Overall, it was great to re-visit A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. It’s an interesting look at a dysfunctional family with its secrets and its hardships, the madness and how lived experiences can shape one’s life and one’s relationships with others. I highly recommend this novel if you’re a reader of historical fiction, literary fiction, and books about dysfunctional families.