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A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

This quite extraordinary book with an even more extraordinary title was recommended to me by a good friend who neither revealed anything about the contents nor genre – she simply said, “read it, I think you’ll enjoy it.”

She was right.

A strange book in that it’s at once both incredibly comical and tragic, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian basically tells the story of two estranged sisters, Vera and Nadezhda (Nadia), who are appalled to discover that their widowed and elderly father is about to remarry a luscious Ukrainian woman, Valentina, many decades his junior. Valentina also has a teenage son whom she believes is a “genius”. And so a tale of reckless marriage, love thwarted, dishonour, honour, the past, memory, family and the human capacity to survive unfolds.

The opening of the book is quite stunning and sets a deceptive tone:

“Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcee. He was eight-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky waters, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.”

Enter Valentina: stage right, a ruthless, cunning and beautiful woman who seduces the old man into marriage believing that, as someone who has forged a life in a Western country, he must have money, and who intends, through wedlock to make a better life for herself and her gifted son.

Forcing the two angry sisters to co-operate in order to first prevent their father’s marriage and later, instigate his divorce, the book is told mainly from Nadia’s point of view. Filled with eccentric characters (none more so than the elderly father and Valentina), passion, purpose, and desperation, it is at once very funny and moving.

Like Nadia, we’re drawn into her father’s alternating states of misery and jubilation as his young, mercenary wife, both abuses and thrills him with her flirtatious and calculating ways. Just when you think she’s the “slut” and “gold-digger” the eldest sister, Vera, is persuaded she is, the book also exposes the pathos and hardship that faces those who are displaced – through war, politics and Otherness. Moving back in time to war-time Europe, we’re given insights into what faced inhabitants of occupied countries; the horror of camps, of having loved ones torn from your side and the constant fear that becomes a part of life – fear of loss, of dreams unfulfilled and so much more.

Having experienced this herself (indirectly – Nadia was a peace-time baby who nonetheless witnessed what the war did to her family and became an immigrant too) and through her family who suffered greatly and quietly during the war, Nadia is able to view Valentina and her actions differently to most. Seguing from anger to empathy, the sociologist in her struggles to understand, not only Valentina, but her father and sister and later, the other besotted and desperate characters who Valentina, as her marriage deteriorates, drags into their lives.

Running parallel to all the emotional and psychological chaos of the present is not only the upheavals and horror of the past, but the ordered and academic work that the father works on – the history of tractors. Functioning as analogous to the main narrative, it takes the reader through the glory of agriculture, the boons that technology offered, the abilities of humans to create and harness the power such technology and the ability to control nature offered, but also the huge dangers that lie in succumbing to progress without balance. It also offers a cautionary tale about the seductions of the West – something the Ukrainian refugees know all too well.

The book is also about families, old age, tenderness, love, the ties that bind even when we don’t want them too. It’s about loss, forgiveness and the capacity to both remember and forget. It’s about passion, compassion and human’s dreadful facility for cruelty – even the unintended kind.

Delightful, moving, funny and utterly unforgettable, A Short History is a book that will resonate with me for a long time to come.

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