Monday, September 17, 2007



I forgot to mention that Newsday ran my review of Marina Lewycka's Strawberry Fields at the end of August. I began this way:
Marina Lewycka published her first novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, at the tender age of 59. This 2005 debut--an antic battle between English propriety and Slavic extroversion--went on to sell 750,000 copies worldwide. As a personal triumph, and a thumb in the eye of an increasingly market-driven publishing industry, this was good news indeed. But it left the author with one frightening prospect: sophomore slump. Would she be the latest sexagenarian to crumple under the heavy burden of overnight success?

On the basis of Strawberry Fields, the answer would be: mostly not. Readers of Lewycka's first book will find themselves on familiar terrain, complete with a pair of Ukrainian lovers. They are a long way from home, of course, earning pathetic wages on a Yorkshire strawberry farm. Yet the youthful Andriy Palenko and Irina Blazhkol might be said to represent the yin and yang (or is that the id and superego?) of the Ukrainian soul: the hard-bitten son of a coal miner, with a sentimental attachment to the Soviet era, and a professor's daughter, whose rosy picture of the West is derived from something called Let's Talk English!
I cannot tell a lie: the new book is not quite as good as its predecessor. With multiple nods to Chaucer, the author has opted for an ensemble approach, and the resulting narrative is a little too diffuse. And as I mention in the review itself, the fart jokes and malapropisms sometimes suggest a more genteel Borat (minus the ironic Jew-baiting). Still, Strawberry Fields has an appealing sweetness, and Lewycka confers upon her characters a gift surprisingly rare in contemporary fiction: dignity.

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