Marina Lewycka, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

Such a fun title, Marina Lewycka's debut novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian! The book itself is less fun, but how could it be otherwise? I felt the same way about Dave Eggers' memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which hooked me with its game-playing but nearly lost me in the prose.

That wasn't an issue here. Lewycka does a very nice job with her prose, with her characters, with the set-up: nice job all around, actually. But if that doesn't sound like high praise, well, it isn't meant to. [Argh! I just went sniffing for online comments on it, and I'm dashed if Grumpy Old Bookman didn't call it "nice" in precisely the same context two years ago!] The novel was nominated for the Orange Prize in 2006, for the best novel by a woman that was published in Britain, losing out to Zadie Smith's On Beauty. The sticker on the cover says it was also nominated for the Man Booker, for the best Commonwealth or Irish novel written in English, too, but I can't find confirmation of that online. Not that a publisher would lie, you understand.

But to both of which I say, really? This book?

I certainly wouldn't recommend that you avoid A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, because it does many things well. The characterization is very good, for example, and the speech rhythms of the individual characters (plus the little tics that mark their speech patterns) really are top notch. But the tractor narrative felt like it was imposed to be Artistic; it's central to the life of the elderly chap writing it (the narrator's father), but I expected there'd be clearer connections between it and the rest of the story. But there weren't, and it felt unnecessary.

Actually, no, not unnecessary. I'd have been fascinated if this story was told by the elderly gentleman in relation to his history of tractors, either embedded somehow into that narrative or peripherally to his tale of writing that history. The problem really was that the narrator didn't work for me. There's a running gag that her sister thinks she's a social worker when she's actually a sociology professor, so maybe I'm supposed to find her bland and difficult to pin down, but it didn't work for me. I kept being surprised that she had a daughter, for example, and her profession and knowledge seemed irrelevant.

'Nuff said, I think. Nice book. On to something better, I hope.


Anonymous said…
Very sharp review of the book. I did enjoy it, but was a tad perplexed as to why it received some book award nomiinations. It certainly did not belong in the same league as Smith's 'On Beauty'. I also agree about the lack of continuity between the story and the father's history of tractors. Didn't flow for me, either. But the characters and dialogue were pure delight, and I will certainly read her new book that is out.

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