Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka
Publisher Fig Tree - A Penguin Books Imprint
It's a bad idea to read reviews of books before actually reading them. I'd read two. Both not entirely flattering. The Economist pared it down to the part about the chickens. And I do take the magazine's or should it be newspaper's word seriously.
So I left Marina Lewycka's second book Two Caravans on my book shelf for the longest time.
The only reason it ended in my bag was thanks to a rather unplanned vacation and because everything else on the shelf at that moment looked way too serious. There were promises of a strawberry field - what better way to sit back and relax? Add to that the idyll of the English countryside, beautiful summer days, fields far far away and caravans of course.
Oh, I could definitely survive this, even if I didn't end up loving it. But love it was the minute I was introduced to Irina, hot off the coach from Kiev straight into the hands of the sinister Mister Vulk:
"Life in vest is too much expensive, little flovver. Who do you think vill be pay for all such luxury?
Although his English was appalling , those words came rolling out like a prepared speech. 'You think this vill be providing all for free?'
So Mother had been right. 'Anybody can see this agency is run by crooks. Anybody but you, Irina.' (See how Mother has this annoying habit of putting me down?)"
With that Irina tries to convince herself that her plans of improving her English and finding true love with a romantic Englishman will bear fruit. Never mind that Vulk has ensured 'little flovver' is stripped of her passport.
Here comes Andriy Palenko, the miner's son from the other Ukraine, who acknowledges her nice features but also her attitude:
"She thinks she's a high-culture type with a superior mentality, and you're a low culture type. (And so what if you are? Is that something to be ashamed of?)"
I love the way Lewycka gets into the skin of her characters to bring alive the Bob Dylan fan - Tomasz, Yola the uncrowned strawberry plucking chief, the two Chinese girls, Emanuel from Malawi who has made the journey in search of his sister. The stories of these characters and several more take you to different lands without the intricate weave of the story losing its appeal.
Song Ying's journey begins in Guangdong where her dreams began and ended. Soo Lai Bee is the victim of a broken heart and has to flee Malaysia.
They all come together to share stories of their lives, their dreams - some shattered, some still there, they watch the sun rise and set as they pick strawberries together.
Life isn't all that rosy, there is more to the world revolving around the strawberry fields. Gang masters, exploitative employers, government regulations, life and love -all of these threads somehow weave themselves together through Lewycka's deft pen.
Long after I was through with the last page, Irina's words came back to me:
".....In the silence, I started to feel the closeness of all the other people who had stood and lain in this place over thousands of years, staring at these same rocks and this sky. I imagined I could hear their footsteps and their voices in my head, not hurrying or shouting, but just the gentle chatter-patter of human life, as it has been lived on this earth since time was first counted.
It reminded me of my childhood, when my bed had been in the living room of our little two-roomed flat, and each night I fell asleep to the sound of my parents' voices and their quiet movement tiptoeing around so as not to wake me - chatter-patter."
It may not have worked for the rest, but it certainly worked for me. I think comparisons are futile. Two Caravans stands on its own and holds its ground.
It won't be a word of mouth hit like the author's debut A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - too much ink has already been spilt on Two Caravans. But it will definitely be read by people across the world. At last count, Tractors has been translated into 29 languages and had won the 2005 Saga Award for Wit, the 2005 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize and was shortlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction. It's a tough act to follow, though Lewycka is definitely up to it.
No surprise that the 61 year old Ukranian has been tipped to be a "literary lion of the future," according to this report in The Times.
Well, she may be a bestselling author now, but her literary journey started with a rejection slip. Yes, we live in times of hope.