A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian – Review

Don’t be put off by the title of this very engaging debut novel – it really is aimed at a female audience! You don’t have to be a tractor fanatic in order to become fascinated with the quirky characters and their surprising dilemmas. The first three sentences both immediately suck you into the world of Nadia and her family, and also neatly summarize the plot that will unfold. They are: “Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcee. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky waters….”.

Nadia, the narrator, is a fifty something sociology lecturer who has not seen her domineering older sister, Vera, since their mother’s controversial will was read out two years before. Vera and her parents were born in the Ukraine and came to England after the war as refugees, However Nadia is “the peace baby”, who is English by birth, if not by heritage. The two feuding sisters must band together to defeat Valentina, their father’s “child bride”.

Valentina has high expectations of her new husband and of western consumerism.. Nikolai quickly discovers he is out of his depth. Instead of being a damsel in distress, Valentina is a demanding virago who leaves her aged husband trembling with fear. The only pleasure he has left in life is working on his history of tractors. Can Vera and Nadia save their father? Is Valentina really that evil? Will Nikolai’s definitive history ever get completed? Why are Vera and Nadia so very different in their outlooks on life and will they ever be totally reconciled?

This rollercoaster of a novel will keep you intrigued to the very last page with its wonderful mixture of comedy and tragedy. What’s more, there is a Kiwi connection – the author, who was born to Ukrainian parents in a refugee camp in Germany just after the war, is married to a New Zealander.

This novel was nominated for the Orange Award for 2005 and you can find an interview with the author on the excellent Orange Prize website at www.orangeprize.co.uk.

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