It’s often not until something traumatic or highly unusual happens in a family that you discover how well you do or don’t know these people with whom you have spent all or much of your life.
And that many of the assumptions you have made about them come unravelling with perplexing speed and ferocity, in ways you never saw coming and cannot account for.
It’s a well-worn pattern that plays out with poetic elegance in Marina Lewycka’s debut novel (2005),A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, which sees a Ukrainian family who have lived in the UK for decades thrown out of their customary patterns of behaviour when the 84 year old widowed father, the one with the eccentrically-obsessed in tractors, not just Ukrainian but worldwide, finds ad marries a new bride, the sexually-charged and materially-avaricious 36 year old blonde bombshell Valentina.
“Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcée. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.” (P. 1)
Perplexed by the speed at which Valentina not only ingratiates herself into her father Nikolai’s life but begins making demands for extravagantly-expensive cars, stoves and clothes, thinking he is a rich man like all Western Europeans, daughter Nadezhda (Nadia) enlists the help of estranged older sister Vera in an effort to save her father from a clearly invidious fate.
It’s not so much about the money involved – though there are ructions between the two sisters over a modest amount left by her deceased mother to her three grandchildren – but the welfare of their father, who though he has always been remote and the far less involved of the two parents, nonetheless summons a fierce protective instinct in both woman, most particularly Nadia.
It’s a premise that resonates with dramatic and comedic possibilities and Lewycka, herself the child of Ukrainian immigrants to Britain, makes the most of both, presenting us with scenes both amusing and cruel, balancing Valentina’s vitriolic self-obsessed outbursts – she is cruel at times but also possessed of a creative way with insults and much to Nadia’s reluctance, a vulnerable side too – with truly hilarious moments.
While the narrative is a little plodding at times, essentially taking us from A to B in a reasonable conventional way, there is something delightfully engaging, and when Valentina is in full speed ahead mode and dredging up all these hitherto unspoken feelings and issues between the sisters at their father, uncomfortably confronting about the way Valentina’s arrival royally upsets the apple cart of their family’s almost set-in-stone dynamics.
What is this familial chaos does demonstrate, and it turns out to be for the family’s benefit overall, especially for Nadia and Vera who find a rapprochement that, though not snug and cosy, is closer than before, is how little Nadia, who is 10 years younger than her sister and was born in a peaceful UK rather than a war-torn Ukraine, really knows about her family’s experiences before they emigrated.
There is much that has been hidden from her because it’s simply too painful or confronting to talk about, and having known only the stable delight of a Western liberal democracy, a far cry from the experiences of her mother and father and Vera, who takes great delight in pillorying her sister’s life with loving husband Mike at every turn, Nadia realises she is separated from them by more than distance or outlook.
They have lived an entire life it seems far removed from the political stability and social safety of Britain, scarred by experiences during World War Two – the book is set in the ’80s though this is never actually noted nor emphasised – that have shaped not just them but the family as a whole.
“What does it matter? It’s only a photograph. But that photograph! But is it worth losing a new-found sister over? These thoughts race through my mind as I sit on the last train home, watching my reflection in the window as it fleets over the darkening fields and woods. The face in the window, colours washed out in the dusky light, has the same shape and contours as the face in the sepia photograph. When she smiles, the smile is the same.” (P. 213)
As these secret histories are finally revealed, albeit quite reluctantly by Vera, Nadia comes to realise how much that past has shaped her life but also the way in which she relates to her fractious sister and oddball father, an intelligent father more at home writing about tractors – excerpts of his book appear throughout the book and are actually informatively entertaining – than he is being a parent.
Spun with good humour, rare insight and a willingness to employ tropes aplenty when needed – Valentina, for instance, is the very brassy epitome of a greedy Eastern European goldigger in all her amusing gold-digger though Lewycka does goes to some lengths to humanise her enough that she emerges from cartoon villain territory – A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is a fun, thoughtful and engaging read that will likely prompt you to ask yourself what it is about your family that is unknown and how it made you and your fellow family members the people they are today.