Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Book Review: A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian by Marina Lewycka

A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian is the book within a book that Nikolai, the 84 year-old Ukranian-born widower writes as a therapy to the stress to which he is subjected by his new, 36 year-old wife in their marriage of convenience. Only two years previously bereaved of his wife, Nikolai marries the full-bosomed Valentina in what he sees as an heroic act, but her interest is only in a British passport and Nikolai's money.

This somewhat cliched premise is punctuated by flashbacks to life in Ukraine during World War Two and Stalin's Soviet Union and also by excerpts from the history of tractors. Unfortunately the writing style rather stutters along with lots of short paragraphs separated by long periods of time and the flashbacks at first seem to have little, if any, relevance with the excerpts from the tractor manuscript feeling like even more unwelcome intruders than Valentina herself becomes. However, as the story progresses one begins to feel for the nearly senile Nikolai and Valentina becomes a villain of Cruella De Ville proportions; by the end even the flashbacks and tractor story are revealed to have some relevance, if somewhat tenuous. In fact the flashbacks to life in Ukraine do little to illuminate the somewhat two dimensional characters and their inclusion to justify a fairly trite message at the end makes them feel like they were added to flesh out a story that could have been told in half the time.

Despite these issues, after labouring my way through the first half of the book, I began to enjoy the story of how the family unites to rid Nikolai of his unwanted wife and the crisis brings together his two daughters who have been feuding since the death of their mother. The story becomes almost farcical towards the end but I didn't find myself laughing at this, just thinking how stupid the situation was and I could not find the humour in this book that many reviewers have talked about, but I did find this a fairly interesting, if sad, portrayal of old age - whether that was intended by the author or not I am not sure, and it is possibly just a by-product.

Whilst I did find something to enjoy in this book, mainly the plot, the author takes too long to get the reader into the story and the first half is quite boring. Many of the characters are just annoying, particularly the sisters, and I found it difficult to know if the author was poking fun at middle class ignorance or if the whole book was just a rant.

This book is worth a look just because it deals with a fairly interesting topic and its portrayal of an elderly and confused man trying to cope with the consequences of a late-life crisis. However, prepare to struggle through the first half of the book and to be irritated by the breaks in the story created by almost irrelevant flashbacks. Not bad but nowhere near as good as many reviews suggest.

Score: 6/10

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