2006, 324 p.
One of the things that surprised and startled me when we travelled to Britain two years ago was the vehemence of dissatisfaction over Eastern European immigration to Britain. I’m not denying that Australians too have a strong streak of intolerance to immigration, but I don’t think that it’s voiced quite so loudly. For a variety of historical and geopolitical reasons, Australian prejudice is closely related to colour, marked most obviously by the White Australia policy that was one of the early legislative acts of the new Australian commonwealth. The initial post-war migration schemes extended the traditional British migration to Baltic refugees, and although there was feeling against “The Balts”, it was soon directed more towards darker, “peasant” Southern European refugees, then Vietnamese, then Middle Eastern and African immigrants. So, certainly I’m not coming from any moral high ground here. But nonetheless, I found the English strength of feeling against migrants who were “white” and visually indistinguishable quite unsettling.
And so, I felt a bit disconcerted opening up this book and finding much of this anti-East European feeling in black and white (groan- very bad pun) on the page. But I soon saw that Nadia (Nadezhda) , the narrator, shared some of my liberal anxiety about such vehement rejection of Valentina, the young Ukranian woman angling for marriage with her much-old Ukranian widower father. But Valentina really was appalling- manipulative, greedy, single-minded and cruel towards Nadia’s father who soon reveals his sexual and financial inadequacies once the marriage has been performed.
In opposing the marriage, and then helping to rescue her father from it, Nadia enlists the support of her sister Vera who is ten years older and of a more Conservative bent. Nadia finds herself, despite her liberal politics and sociology degree- transformed into Mrs-Flog-em-and-Send-em-Home, and even though she is not close to her sister (Mrs Divorce Expert) the two sisters work in tandem to work the divorce and immigration system to extricate their father from his self-inflicted predicament. Through this enforced contact they broach the gulf that has always existed between the older Vera, the War Baby, born in the Ukraine and a survivor of the politics and purges of wartime Eastern Europe, and the younger Nadia, the Peace Baby who has been shielded from the knowledge of her family’s experience. Nadia has idealized this unspoken history, and comes to realize that her family too were economic refugees; that her father’s wartime activities were not honorable; that her parents’ marriage was based on resignation and determination and that sheer survival involves compromises and evasions.
The blurbs on my copy led me to expect a funny book – “Extremely funny” blurbs The Times; “Mad and hilarious” announces the Daily Telegraph, and the book was awarded the Bollinger Everyman Prize for Comic Fiction, I see. I didn’t really laugh at this book out loud- in fact I felt a twinge of guilt about the mockery of the dreadful Valentina and the undercurrent of racism. I kept expecting that there would be a dramatic turning point in the novel- that the sisters would learn something about Valentina that would cause them to abandon their resistance to her; that some dreadful truth about her father would emerge that would cause me to lose sympathy for him. But the book just tootled along in its own way, and the ending was really quite uplifting with a victory for resiliance and independence.