Of lives far from rosy
Deepika Gurdev

Two Caravans
by Marina Lewycka Penguin. Pages 310. 16.99.

Two CaravansPromises of a strawberry field, the idyll of the English countryside, beautiful summer days, fields far away and caravans, of course. Not enough to tempt you to this one. Then how about meeting Irina, off the coach from Kiev, straight into the hands of the sinister Mister Vulk: "Life in vest is too much expensive, little flovver. Who do you think vill be pay for all such luxury?" Although his English is appalling, these words come rolling out like a prepared speech: "You think this vill be providing all for free?" So Mother had been right. "Anybody can see this agency is run by crooks. Anybody, but you, Irina."

Welcome to Irina's new world, in which she tries to convince herself that her plans of improving her English and finding true love with a romantic Englishman will bear fruit. Never mind that Vulk has ensured that 'little flovver' is stripped of her passport. Here comes Andriy Palenko, the miner's son from the other Ukraine, who acknowledges not only her nice features, but also her attitude. "She thinks she is a high-culture type with a superior mentality, and you are a low-culture type."

I love the way Lewycka gets into the skin of her characters to bring alive the Bob Dylan fan, Tomasz, Yola, the uncrowned strawberry plucking chief, the two Chinese girls and Emanuel from Malawi, who has made the journey in search of his sister. The stories of these characters and more take you to different lands without the intricate weave of the story losing its appeal. Song Ying's journey begins in Guangdong, where her dreams begin and end. Soo Lai Bee is the victim of a broken heart and has to flee Malaysia.

They come together to share stories of their lives and dreams, some shattered, some still there, as they watch the sun rise and set while they pick strawberries together. Life is not all that rosy, there is more to the world revolving around the strawberry fields. Gang masters, exploitative employers, government regulations, life and love-all of these threads somehow weave themselves together through Lewycka's deft pen.

Long after I was through with the last page, Irina's words came back to me: "In the silence, I started to feel the closeness of all the other people who had stood and lain in this place over thousands of years, staring at these same rocks and this sky. I imagined I could hear their footsteps and their voices in my head, not hurrying or shouting, but just the gentle chatter-patter of human life, as it has been lived on this earth since time was first counted. It reminded me of my childhood, when my bed had been in the living room of our little two-roomed flat, and each night I fell asleep to the sound of my parents' voices and their quiet movement tiptoeing around so as not to wake me-chatter-patter."

It may not have worked for everyone, but it has certainly done for me. I think comparisons are futile. The book stands out and holds its ground. It will be read across the world. It will not be a word-of-mouth hit like the author's debut work. Her earlier masterpiece has, at last count, been translated into 29 languages. It has won the 2005 Saga Award for Wit, the 2005 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize and has been shortlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction. It is a tough act to follow, though Lewycka is definitely up to it.

No surprise that the 61-year-old Ukranian has been tipped to be a literary lion of the future, according to a report in The Times. She may be a bestselling author now, but her literary journey started with a drawer full of rejection slips. If that thought has been stopping you from bringing your pen to paper, there has never been a better story to get you started.