NetReviews on LitNetArchive
Tuis /
Briewe /
Kennisgewings /
Skakels /
Boeke /
Opiniestukke /
Onderhoude /
Rubrieke /
Fiksie /
Poësie /
Taaldebat /
Language debate
Film /
Teater /
Musiek /
Resensies /
Nuus /
Slypskole /
Spesiale projekte /
Special projects
Opvoedkunde /
Kos en Wyn /
Food and Wine
Artikels /
Visueel /
Expatliteratuur /
Expat literature
Reis /
Geestelike literatuur /
Religious literature
Nederlands /
Gayliteratuur /
Gay literature
Hygliteratuur /
Erotic literature
Bieg /
In Memoriam
Wie is ons? /
More on LitNet
LitNet is ’n onafhanklike joernaal op die Internet, en word as gesamentlike onderneming deur Ligitprops 3042 BK en Media24 bedryf.

Big ideas, family feuds and a fluffy pink grenade

Michelle McGrane

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
By: Marina Lewycka
Price: R120,95
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 0141020520
Format: Trade paperback
Click on the book cover or here to order your copy from

The eccentric title of this book may not recommend it to a wide range of readers, but A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was the winner of the SAGA Award for Wit 2005. It was also nominated for the Booker Prize, the Orange Prize and the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Writing in 2005.

Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcée. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.
Nikolai Mayevskyj is a widowed Ukrainian immigrant living in Peterborough, England. His middle-aged daughters, Verochka (Vera) and Nadezhda (Nadia) are appalled when he announces his intention to marry Valentina, a bottle-blonde economic migrant from the Ukraine, three weeks before her British tourist visa expires: “He is helping her with her English,” he says, “and she is cleaning the house and looking after him. She sits on his lap and allows him to fondle her breasts. They are happy together.”

Gucci-accessorised Vera, a recent divorcee, is hard-edged, uncompromising and decisive, while Nadia, the narrator, is a “woolly-mindedly liberal” sociology professor. The sisters, who have never been close and have not spoken to each other since a dispute over their mother’s will, form an alliance to oust the gold-digging Valentina.

We have something in common at last … As Romeo and Juliet found to their cost, marriage is never just about two people falling in love, it is about families. Vera and I do not want Valentina in our family.
Marina Lewycka has created a vivid and entertaining character in the mercenary Valentina Dubov. Armed with enormous breasts “bursting like twin warheads” out of a “lace-trimmed green satin rocket-launcher of a bra”, peep-toe mules and a lycra denim mini-skirt, she is a formidable and ruthless adversary. Determined to make a new life in the West for herself and her fourteen-year-old son, Stanislav, she demands “a good life, with good job, good money, nice car – absolutely no Lada no Skoda – good education for son – must be Oxford Cambridge, nothing less.”

The narrator's father, a retired engineer, is researching and writing his great work, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. The bewildered old man is preoccupied with tractors and Valentina's “superior breasts” and soils himself when he is frightened. His daughters berate him for behaving like an "eighty-four-year-old teenager tuned into his private music" and exasperatedly exhort him to act like an adult. With acute insight, the author focuses on the brutal realities of ageing, using the frail and vulnerable character of “Pappa” Mayevskyj.

His glasses have slipped down his nose, and sit at a crazy angle. His shirt is unbuttoned at the throat, showing the white hairs that sprout around his scar. He has a sour, unwashed smell. He isn’t exactly your Don Juan, but he has no idea.
Setting themselves up as “Mrs Divorce Expert” and “Mrs Flog-‘em-and-send-‘em home”, Vera and Nadia find mutual ground on which to relate while plotting to rid their dysfunctional family of the avaricious intruder. As the past is ploughed up, Nadia begins to understand what it is that makes her sister so different and why Vera insists on keeping the door to the family’s past locked: “The past is filthy. It’s like a sewer. You shouldn’t play there. Leave it alone. Forget it.” Vera, who is ten years older than Nadia, has been scarred by the horror, dislocation and oppression of her war-ravaged childhood, while Nadia, a peacetime baby, has escaped these haunting memories.

Marina Lewycka’s writing style is fresh, colourful and mischievously inventive. She makes use of a fluent and snappy “mongrel language”, half-English, half-Ukrainian, often with comic results. “Bad-news peeping no-tits crow”, “crazy dog-eaten-brain graveyard-deadman” and “she-cat-dog-vixen flesh-eating witch” are some of the expressive and flamboyant verbal taunts which the irrepressible Valentina tosses about.

Lewycka, who was born of Ukrainian parents in a refugee camp in Germany at the end of World War II, captures the foibles of human nature with precision and humour. The comic elements of the novel are skilfully tempered with bleak reminiscences of refugee camps and reminders of the physical and mental deterioration which accompanies old age.

The strength of this story lies in the cleverly crafted characters. No one escapes the author’s gaze unscathed. Tender, quirky and wryly observant, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is an original, bittersweet and impressive first novel which engages the large, complex themes of family, ageing, immigration and the inhumanity of war. Don’t let the title put you off.


Marina Lewycka teaches at Sheffield Hallam University. She is married and has a grown-up daughter.

LitNet: 20 March 2006

Have your say! To comment on this review write to, and become a part of our interactive opinion page.

to the top / boontoe

© Kopiereg in die ontwerp en inhoud van hierdie webruimte behoort aan LitNet, uitgesluit die kopiereg in bydraes wat berus by die outeurs wat sodanige bydraes verskaf. LitNet streef na die plasing van oorspronklike materiaal en na die oop en onbeperkte uitruil van idees en menings. Die menings van bydraers tot hierdie werftuiste is dus hul eie en weerspieël nie noodwendig die mening van die redaksie en bestuur van LitNet nie. LitNet kan ongelukkig ook nie waarborg dat hierdie diens ononderbroke of foutloos sal wees nie en gebruikers wat steun op inligting wat hier verskaf word, doen dit op hul eie risiko. Media24, M-Web, Ligitprops 3042 BK en die bestuur en redaksie van LitNet aanvaar derhalwe geen aanspreeklikheid vir enige regstreekse of onregstreekse verlies of skade wat uit sodanige bydraes of die verskaffing van hierdie diens spruit nie. LitNet is ’n onafhanklike joernaal op die Internet, en word as gesamentlike onderneming deur Ligitprops 3042 BK en Media24 bedryf.