One of the funniest, but saddest books I have read recently, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian tracks a woman’s relationships with her sister and her father when her father gets remarried. It also tells the story of their family before and during World War 2, then later as post-World War 2 immigrants in Britain.
Nadezhda and Vera are two sisters who were estranged shortly after the death of their mother, but they come together when their father, Nikolai, marries Valentina, a young Ukrainian divorcee. Valentina is a manipulative character with whom their father has fallen deep in love, only outsiders see that she is using him for money and British citizenship. The sisters unite by trying to extract their father from the relationship and opening his eyes to Valentina’s scam. They eventually succeed in getting him a divorce, and also write to the local immigration office to try and get her deported. Meanwhile their father, the man stuck in the toxic relationship, is quietly working on the history of tractors of the title, parts of which are interspersed throughout the novel. His work is a labour of love, telling his life story, and revealing family truths. His daughters also discuss the family and each reveal secrets about their parents lives.
This novel is amusing, and sad, it is a clever novel, but not overly convincing. Lewycka has captured family drama well and Valentina’s behaviour is a fine example of a manipulative person. Despite this in some places the novel is too complicated; bringing in unnecessary characters, especially the members of the Ukrainian community who side with either Valentina or Nikolai, but need not be included in the novel. On the other hand it can also be considered very simplistic; the descriptions of characters are cartoonish, especially Valentina’s “enormous breasts”. Although funny, I didn’t find it to be an interesting read and I don’t feel this novel was really worth my time (although it did only take me about 3 hours).