- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 19, 2005


By Marina Lewycka

Penguin, $24.95, 296 pages


A title like “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian” promises whimsy and quirkiness, the twin crutches of too much of today’s fiction. Fortunately, Marina Lewycka, a British academic and author of six books on elder care, has produced a remarkable debut novel that delivers considerably more.

Nikolai, an 84-year-old retired and widowed engineer of Ukrainian birth living north of London, decides, two years after his wife’s death, to wed again. This news devastates his daughters, Nadezhda and Vera.

It is not simply that this represents a slap at their mother’s memory. It is more that the object of their father’s desire, Valentina, is a 36-year-old Ukrainian gold-digger of Rubenesque proportions whose own desire clearly is not domestic bliss but to acquire British citizenship and Western consumer goods.

What most disturbs both father and daughters, for different reasons, is Valentina’s fabulous bosom. “Voluptuous breasts that bob up and down as she walks,” thinks Nadezhda, narrator of the novel, “a wanton expanse of dimpled, creamy flesh.”

To Nikolai, they are objects of drooling adoration. To his daughters, both of much slimmer build, they are a reproach, though each reproaches herself for being intimidated. More alarming, Nikolai informs Nadezhda that procreation is not entirely out of the question. “Snag is,” he tells her in his occasionally broken English, “hydraulic lift no longer fully functioning” — a geriatric detail she does not wish to hear.

Though Valentina comes trailing a teenage son and a recently obtained Ukrainian divorce, the marriage goes ahead, and she begins to walk, lazily and insolently, all over Nikolai and his carefully structured Ukrainian-British family in her high-heeled peep-toe mules.

There is nothing like a common enemy to unite adversaries. Nadezhda and Vera, long estranged, join to rescue their addled father from the clutches of this brazen seductress. Here the novel, while still employing whimsy and quirkiness, begins to go beyond them. The deeper we go into the book, the deeper we go into their lives.

Vera, who at 57 is 10 years older than her sister, knows things about family history that Nadezhda doesn’t. These are, Nadezhda believes, “things that were whispered but never spoken about” — hard times in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and ‘30s, forced labor in Nazi Germany, emigration to Britain after World War II (a history that sounds much like the author’s).

Their anti-Valentina campaign brings the women closer together personally and in outlook. Nadezhda, a parlor socialist whose feminism has led her to see all women as sisters — except her sister — becomes more carping and less liberal. Vera, a fierce supporter of Margaret Thatcher and all that that implies, loses some of her abrasive certainty.

Vera is much harder on her father and his octogenarian high jinks than is Nadezhda, who is rather touched by his childlike joy. “Why does she hate him so much?” Nadezhda wonders. It is a question that, rather like the dread, mysterious “something nasty in the woodshed” of Stella Gibbons’ “Cold Comfort Farm,” is never fully answered, only hinted at through recollections of eccentric, crazy, reckless things Nikolai has done, including to their mother.

Nikolai, meanwhile, has embarked on the great project of his old age, a history of the tractor (written in Ukrainian and translated), excerpts from which are interspersed throughout the novel. If there is one serious flaw to the novel, it is that this tractor history is not integral to it; albeit mildly interesting in itself, if it were removed, little would be lost, other than a clever title.

“A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian” has the wicked blend of seriousness and anarchic humor of an Amis novel. (Kingsley Amis, that is; Martin has little humor, anarchic or otherwise.) People frequently speak English in the comic, truncated accent — dropping definite and indefinite articles — that we reserve for Eastern Europeans.

“Must be good car. Must be Mercedes or Jaguar at least,” an imperious Valentina demands of her cowed Lothario, who lives on a small pension. “BMW is OK. No Ford please.” Nadezhda, or the author, seems to employ this especially to convey sarcasm.

At the end, the novel sort of limps off stage, hinting that moderately happy-ever-after lives lurk in the wings. A penultimate chapter, titled “Two Journeys,” is an interruption telling us what we already know. But, as the book has related its main journey so welI — and as the journey is always more important than the goal —we can forgive its not arriving at a definite destination.

Roger K. Miller, a newspaperman for many years, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.

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