The marketing executives at Viking must have tapped pens thoughtfully against teeth before agreeing to the title, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. Helpfully, the book is subtitled “a novel”. The cover is nicely east European: duotone block print. Its author is Marina Lewycka, a lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. Her own story overlaps somewhat with the narrator of A Short History: both daughters of Ukrainian economic migrants who were railroaded, often literally, by the Second World War. Both have daughters of their own. At a guess, both feel an uncomfortable gap between their identity and their history. Ludmilla, mother of the fifty-year-old narrator, Nadezdha, has recently died. In an allusion to the dying fingers of Soviet Russia – Mother Russia – the death of Milla leaves her family divided. Her husband, the wilful Nikolai develops an obsession with a beautiful Ukrainian immigrant called Valentina. Meanwhile, Milla’s two daughters, Nadezdha and Vera, squabble over the division of her inheritance.
The family is set to disintegrate. But before it does, the eighty-four-year-old Nikolai breaks under the pressure of Valentina’s “superior Botticellian breasts” and agrees to marry her. Nadezdha, our narrator, and her sister Vera are apoplectic. They know that the chain-smoking Valentina is fishing for a passport. Soon Nadezdha and Vera are united in their struggle to evict, and deport, Valentina.
Lewycka, the author, is not afraid of cliché, both in character and plot, and her sentences are simple declarative machines that become progressively invisible. This pushes the story to the fore, but risks boredom and challenges the reader to find sympathy with the tedious narrator. Lewycka also has a habit of breaking her scenes into passages separated by blank lines. Traditionally, this layout is used to indicate a change of viewpoint, but here it serves as a lever to heighten the importance of the bit before the break. Like an exclamation mark, there is a time and a place for this layout. And, like too many exclamations, it can be tiring.
The real merit of this book is its marriage of theme and plot. Lewycka wants us to think about identity. To what extent is it based on your history? Can you escape or redefine it? If trapped by the facts of your history, can you supply your own spin? This pressure from the past the threat from the Old Country looms over the book. Valentina, the immigrant Ukrainian, is bad news partly because of her gold-digging behaviour, but partly because she is a tangible piece of the Old Country. For Nadezdha, any identification with Valentina means a reappraisal of the distance she had put between herself and her Ukrainian heritage. For Vera, born the Ukraine, the usurper conjures images of an horrendous past.
Despite reaching occasional thematic heights, this book is let down by its journalistic and uninteresting prose. (Its vapidity is marked at the beginning, but more novelistic styling emerges towards the end.) Some of its characterisation, too, is problematic. Lewycka focuses on the female characters to the extent that her males are underwritten. The narrator’s husband, for example, is ineffective and ghostly; his inclusion in the manuscript seems to do little more than provide another instance of the weakness of males in the presence of females. The father, Nikolai, is a reactive character unequipped to make decisions independent of those made by his daughters or his new wife. His obsession with a history of the tractor is his single proactive behaviour, but this is somewhat subservient to Lewycka’s theme, which pits the known knowns of the past against the known unknowns of the present. As for the remainder of Valentina’s suitors, they receive less dramatic attention than the vegetables in Ludmilla’s decaying garden. This feminisation of the story can be explained by the narrator’s explicitly feminist outlook, which can be excused within the world of Nadezdha, but will limit the book’s appeal for male readers. This is disappointing because some of its explorations of identity are genuinely insightful.