Family truths
Deepika Gurdev

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
by Marina Lewycka.
Viking/Penguin. Pages 325. 9.

A Short History of Tractors in UkrainianA problematic father, feuding sisters, disputes over a will or lack thereof might sound like a script out of any typical family melodrama. Besides the title, what really sets Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian apart you might wonder.

For starters, it's just the way the story is told. Love makes a fool of the best of us. But in this case, it is bringing out the Peter Pan in 84-year-old Nikolai Mayevskyj, a Ukranian-born widower. With a gold-digger at his heels and the pronouncements of re-marriage, sisters Vera and Nadezhda quickly need to put a lifetime of feuding aside to save him.

That's largely because the new love of his life is not only half his age, but also with a fetish for cars and cash. However, she is driven in her single-minded determination of getting the best of life in the West, even if that means driving love-struck Nikolai to the grave.

Having survived the tough life in Ukraine, he almost sympathises with the 36-year-old Valentina. With that he draws on his last reserves of savings, even stoops down to taking loans from his daughters to ensure that his new wife has nothing but the very best in life. So, it is that when Valentina hollers: "In former Soviet Union all cookers are white. Crap cookers . . . For civilised person, cooker must be gas, must be brown."

Nikolai goes scurrying into his hidden treasure troves and when those run out, he simply finds a new-found joy - of a life lived on credit.

For Valentina nothing less than a new life in the West will suffice: "A good life, with good job, good money, nice car-absolutely no Lada, no Skoda-good education for son`85must be Oxford Cambridge, nothing less." In return, Nikolai is to get a caring housekeeper coupled with the heroic sense of having rescued a beautiful woman from tragic circumstances and poverty and of course access to the contents of those devastating D-cups.

As the novel progresses, he gets none of that. Watching his steady decline is the milder Nadezhda, a sociology lecturer married to a kind man. She has spent the better part of her life, saving every penny, helping her mother save every scrap, put her wardrobe together with all the seconds at Oxfam. All of that merely to see it all being shattered quick time by the every hungry Valentina.

Watching the rapidly deteriorating state of affairs, she unravels another known fact: "Marriage is never just about two people falling in love, it is about families." With that there is a re-connection of sorts with her sister. Together they embark in what is seemingly mission impossible-to make their father fall out of love.

Even as these battles are on in Nikolai's own backyard, he remains focused on his masterpiece, A History of Tractors in Ukrainian, in which he speaks of the larger ideals that absolutely show no signs of lasting around him.

This novel is not just fun but absolutely entertaining as well. No surprise that it made it to many awards short and long lists, including the Man Booker Prize 2005, The Orange Prize. It bagged the SAGA Award for Wit and the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction last year.

For a novel that makes you re-visit so many family truths in one go, the long list of awards for this stunning debut is only likely to grow in 2006.

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