Another week, another book. This one will be a short review, because in all honesty I don’t have too much to say about it – which isn’t a bad thing! This was an easy read, made me laugh, and taught me quite a bit!
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is both understated and pretty spectacular. It’s been a while since I read a comic novel set in a domestic setting. There’s nothing particularly outstanding about this family, but their idiosyncrasies and argumentative clashes keep the plot moving at a healthy pace.
Nadia and Vera are two sisters currently living in Britain. Vera was born in a labour camp in Ukraine, and Nadia was born in peacetime. The sisters are very, very different. The book opens with Nadia and Vera fighting over their late mother’s will. The title comes from their father: Nikolai. Amidst all the chaos in the book, Nikolai is writing a book about tractors and their development in Ukraine. I won’t lie, I did skim over a lot of ‘his’ writing.
The main plot line revolves around ageing father, Nikolai, (I think he’s in his late seventies or early eighties..) and his new relationship with a much younger, big-breasted, blonde Ukrainian woman who he is ‘saving’ from Ukraine. Nadia, obviously, thinks her father is being scammed and will be taken advantage of. Valentina and her son move into the family home and have a long list of demands. Hijinks ensue!
Lewycka is fantastic in the way she describes family. The whole novel works because she so clearly has a tight grasp on familial relations and the power struggle within families. The presentation of the sisters’ relationship and their separate relationships with their father are absolutely perfect. Nadia takes on the role of the ‘carer’ and is pretty patient with her father, no easy feat – believe me. Vera is much more of the ‘bad cop’, having fallen out of touch with her father, never really having had a good relationship with him. Vera is a fierce and competent woman. Nadia is the narrative voice and paints herself as much more of a floaty left-wing type who admires and hates her sister in equal measure.
Nikolai’s character is fascinating. Lewycka approaches the theme of domestic violence and violence against the vulnerable by putting this impossible, arrogant, stubborn man into a frail, old body. If Nikolai were younger, I wonder if Valentina’s abuse would be seen differently. As it is written, Nikolai’s treatment is disgusting and purposefully makes the reader cringe.
I really enjoyed how Lewycka wrote the dissonance between Vera and Nadia. A big part of the sisters’ issues come from their very different upbringings. I think there is a sense of jealousy from Vera, since Nadia never had to experience the horrors of Ukraine during wartime. Similarly, Nadia feels jealousy because she is excluded from the conversation: Vera knows all of the family secrets, Nadia knows none. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian gently probes this wartime vs peacetime dynamic and includes just enough of the past to make the present understandable to any reader.
In all honesty, there isn’t much to say about the book until you’ve read it! I’d love to speak to some of you if you have read this book – I want to know how much you hate Valentina (if at all).
Thanks for sticking with me, sorry if this ‘review’ is a bit lacklustre.