The first thing that I’ll say about this book is that I don’t like the title. I prefer Brief Histories of things to Short Histories of things. There is no logical reason for this, but because I keep thinking this is called A Brief History I can never find it when I try to look it up, which is very mildly aggravating. Anyway, that’s a mostly irrelevant and, at best, extremely minor niggle, and obviously has no bearing on my view of the book itself.
I am however struggling to work out exactly what my view of the book itself is. I didn’t dislike it in any way, it was a perfectly pleasant book to amble my way through, but perhaps it had been a bit overhyped and the end result was a tad underwhelming. It’s the story of a Ukrainian family who are living in Britain. Sisters Nadezdha and Vera were estranged after the death of their mother, but join forces when their eighty four year old father announces his intention to marry thirty six year old Valentina, described on the blurb as “a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcee.” Together they try to rescue their father from Valentina’s clutches and resolve some of the issues that had separated their family.
It was quite funny at times, but funny in the way that makes me say “ha!” inwardly without cracking my stony reading face into a smile. I think this is one of the areas that left me a bit underwhelmed actually, it certainly wasn’t as uproariously hilarious as the blurb makes out (or the fact that it was nominated for comedy awards), but then what exactly is funny about an elderly man soiling himself? I do appreciate Lewycka’s attempts to be humorous though, as it lightens up what is essentially quite a sad situation. A vulnerable, elderly Ukrainian widower marries a young(er) Ukrainian woman, to help her to get a visa to live in the UK and give himself a sense of a small Ukrainian community, but also, most importantly, to appease his loneliness. His two daughters disapprove (their new stepmother is, after all, younger than they are) and, having alienated himself from his family, he then has to put with the humiliation and degradation of his new wife constantly bullying him and spending his money. I couldn’t help but pity Nikolai, while simultaneously wanting to scream at him to see some sense. Surely no amount of breast fondling is worth living with a woman who quite literally makes him shit himself with fear!
It was definitely an interesting read, I enjoyed finding out more about Ukrainian culture and history (which I know very little about), and even the rather dry excerpts about tractors couldn’t stop me from wanting to finish the book. I think the best way I can really describe A Short History is to say it was fine, I just don’t quite understand the hype around it. I especially don’t understand how it was shortlisted alongside We Need to Talk About Kevin for the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction, which I’ll also be talking about soon so I don’t want to give too much away, except to say that it’s a brilliant book and deserving winner. Obviously We Need to Talk About Kevin and A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian are very different in practically every way, but seeing a book that’s ‘fine’ competing against a book that’s ‘brilliant’ has left me a bit baffled, and I can’t help feeling that there must be something about A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian that I’ve missed.