I read and enjoyed A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian in February 2007. When Two Caravans was first published I read somewhere that it wasn’t as good as her first book, which made me pause before reading it. It’s just as well I took no notice because I think it’s better and shows that you should make your own mind up about a book.
The book begins by describing a beautiful setting in the English countryside:
There is a field – a broad south-sloping field sitting astride a long hill that curves away into a secret leafy valley. It is sheltered by dense hedges of hawthorn and hazel threaded through with wild roses and evening-scented honeysuckle. In the mornings, a light breeze carries up over the Downs, just enough to kiss the air with the fresh salty tang of the English Channel. In fact so delightful; is the air that, sitting up here, you might think you were in paradise.’
From that delightful scene the book soon descends into the depths of hell, as the shocking conditions experienced by the migrant workers are revealed. The group of strawberry pickers – the Ukrainian miner’s son, Andriy, the Poles – voluptuous Yola and her religious niece, Marta, and guitar playing Tomasz; two Chinese girls, Emmanuel an orphan from Malawi looking for his sister and Vitaly from somewhere in Eastern Europe are joined by Irina from Kiev. They’re all hoping to make some money and enjoy a better way of life than in their home countries and are doomed to disappointment, disillusion and danger. Not only are they exploited by their employers but also threatened by gangsters with guns.
The narrative moves between the characters and at first I had to concentrate on who was who, but I soon worked it out as each character has their own individual style. Accompanied by Dog, a stray who adopts them, they move from strawberry picking to catching fish, to waiting on tables, to the horrors of the chicken farm and slaughterhouse where the chickens are processed and packed for the supermarkets. The Chinese girls are packed off to Amsterdam and are not heard from again – their nightmare fate can only be a guess! Dog is a unique character, whose innermost thoughts/instincts are given throughout the book in capital letters ‘I AM DOG I RUN I RUN I SMELL EARTH AND WATER’ I suppose this could be considered irritating, but Dog soon came to life for me through such simple characterisation as he sees off danger and sniffs out food for himself and the humans.
I don’t know if I shall ever be able to look at a punnet of strawberries again without picturing how they were picked and remembering the pittance that the workers are paid. Nor can I possibly eat supermarket chicken again. The vision conjured up by this description of the supervisor in charge of packaging the chicken portions is just too much:
‘She had a distasteful habit of spitting on her fingers as she reached for the chicken pieces coming down the line.’
Add to this the nightmare of catching and loading the chickens to take to the slaughterhouse, the brutal scenes in the slaughterhouse and the appalling working and living conditions of the migrant workers and I’m seriously thinking of never eating chicken again.
This book is not all doom and gloom, however, as there is a joy in how the characters manage to maintain their dignity, despite the dodgy dealings, abuse and hardships. And there is a love story as well. I also liked the brief cameo appearance at the care home of Nikolai, the author of the tractor history in Lewycka’s first book. He is still looking for a wife and proposing marriage to both the old ladies in the home and to Irina.
I can’t say that I found Two Caravans to be a funny or a comic book, although at times the scenes are reminiscent of slapstick and farce. But then I don’t find slapstick and farce funny either. Although the situations are dramatic and outside my sphere of knowledge and experience I found the story and the characters to be real and believable. It’s a touching, thought-provoking and moving book about topical issues. I’m really glad I read it.