Long ago, when I first started blogging about books, I read A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka. It was cute enough, so when I came across another of her novels, Strawberry Fields, I picked it up.
About the Book:
Clever, ambitious, opinionated, but slightly naive Irina is the newest recruit to the strawberry-picking operation in rural England. She’s come west in the hopes of earning better money than she can back home. She joins Marta, Yola, and Tomasz from Poland, Vitaly from origins about which he is vague, Emmanuel from Malawi, two Chinese girls none of the others can tell apart, and Andriy, who is, like herself, from Ukraine. Stuffed into two small trailers for living quarters, the workers bond together in a ragtag kind of community.
Their tentative position doesn’t last long, though. An incident with the strawberry farmer and his wife turns the pickers’ world upside down and flings them out into the great wide world of England.
I am not sure what compelled me to finish this book. Honestly, I didn’t like it much. Perhaps it was a mild curiosity about where Lewycka was going with all the randomness that kept me reluctantly flipping pages.
To start with, the narration is weird. The chapters are long; within them, the story is told through short chunks from various characters. Irina speaks in the first person, even though she does not appear to be the single primary character. Emmanuel’s parts are written as letters to his sister in what I have to admit is an interestingly constructed flavor of English all his own. The other pickers’ perspectives are narrated in limited third person. Eventually there is a dog who speaks without grammar and in all caps, beginning and ending each utterance with “I AM DOG.” It just…never hung together for me.
The way Lewycka writes about her characters feels like she is making fun of them. This is particularly true of the characters who don’t end up figuring as prominently in the overall story. I never came to care about any of them, as they all seemed like caricatures of themselves. I know that style can certainly work, but personally I don’t tend to love books where I have no attachment to any of the characters. (Unless, of course, select forms of literary pyrotechnics are being executed well…which is not the case here.)
Then there was the story itself. Many elements felt exaggerated, silly, stretched to the point of being farcical. There were coincidences and chance meetings out the wazoo. Ok, fine. No problem there, I suppose. But then, out of the blue, something horribly dark would happen, or I’d find out almost by way of a P.S. that something awful had befallen a character. At the edge of this bright, borderline ridiculous world, something twisted and black was nibbling throughout. The result was a novel that felt out of sync with itself.
I did finish it. There were a few touching scenes, where a kind of tender humanness broke through before the extremes crowded it out again. And by the end, the characters who are still a part of the main story have at last acquired a kind of three-dimensional shape to them to replace the stereotyped roles they’d played initially. Lewycka also did a nice job tying up loose ends, which I appreciated. But the book never won me over. My satisfaction came from making it through, rather than from the story itself.
The Verdict: Mediocre
Obviously I didn’t love Strawberry Fields. It may just be that it was way out of alignment with my personal preferences. You won’t find me recommending it, though. I liked Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian better.
What books have you read that felt out of step with themselves? Is that something you like, or does it get on your nerves?