309 p. 2007 p.
That’s it. I’m over Marina Lewycka. I really enjoyed A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian but I loathed We Are All Made of Glue. Two Caravans, which is her second book, comes in between, so perhaps my esteem for her declines with each publication. I do not intend reading any more of her work: I wouldn’t have read this one, except that it was a selection by The Ladies Who Say Oooh (aka bookgroup).
The title refers to the two caravans that house a motley group of itinerant workers drawn from various countries: Irina and Andriy are both Ukrainian but from very different political and cultural backgrounds; Tomasc, Vitaly, the middle-aged Yola and her daughter Marta are Polish; there are two Chinese girls, Emanuel from Africa, then the dog. The dog was probably the last straw for me. They are swimming in the slimy waters of the pits of the British economy working as fruit pickers on strawberry farms, processors on a chicken-farm assembly line, kitchen hands and waitresses. Some of the others disappear as sex workers, or reappear as spivs.
They fit every stereotype and I felt uncomfortable reading it and somehow colluding in it. Yes, I know that Lewycka herself is Ukrainian, and that there is a whole vein of humour that can be generated and voiced within a minority group that could not and should not be voice elsewhere- I’m thinking the string of “Wog” comedies created by Nick Giannopoulous and suchlike. But it’s a sharp and dangerous humour that feeds on stereotypes, and while some might be challenged by it, others draw a perverse pleasure from having all their prejudices confirmed.
It is touted as a comedy, but I found little to laugh about. I suppose that the book worked in that the amorphous umbrella term “immigrant worker” was broken down into individual people from a range of backgrounds, and it was not an ‘us versus them’ scenario as there were shysters, grubbers and exploiters among the English and the immigrants alike.
Obviously some reviewers liked it- The Sunday Times, The Telegraph and The Guardian. Reviews from Australia are rather less glowing- The Australian was equivocal and The Age rather dismissive. I’m wondering if it’s a cultural thing perhaps? As we well know, there’s a strong streak of prejudice and intolerance that runs through Australia, and probably every other country as well, but what struck me in England in particular was the assumption, from people you’d just met, that you would unquestionably share their barely-disguised contempt for people from the eastern EU countries. I didn’t want to buy into it then, and I don’t now- even if it does come from ‘inside’.