There is an episode in the comedy sitcom Mind Your Language
, where Jeremy Brown's motley crew of students drawn from all over the world to learn English tell jokes to pass the time. Juan Cervantes, the Spanish bartender, tells a hilarious joke: at the end, he is in stitches, unable to stifle laughter, because the joke is so funny. The problem is, it is wholly in Spanish, so nobody else in the class can understand.
This novel left me feeling like one of those class members.
This is the story of old Nikolai Mayevskyj (pronounced "Mayevski"), eccentric immigrant engineer from Ukraine who falls in love at the age of eighty-four with a sex-bomb, Valentina, who is thirty-six. Valentina has the only goal of finding domicile for herself and her "genius" son, Stanislav, in the UK: and the recently widowed engineer is an easy target. Nikolai's daughters Vera and Nadehzda (the first-person narrator) are appalled, and set about rescuing their father from this scheming vixen, burying their running feud about their mother's legacy temporarily. In the process, a lot of dirty family laundry is unearthed, a lot of distressing events take place, but true to the tradition of comic literature, things pan out in the end.
If one believes the blurbs on the jacket, the novel is "extremely funny" (The Times
), "mad and hilarious" (The Daily Telegraph
) and "...a comic feast, a riotous oil painting of senility, lust and greed" (Economist
). But I found it to be nothing of the sort. The deliberate comic tone of voice that the author adopted was jarring, in view of the fact that extremely serious matters like the abuse of the elderly was being described. You can't laugh such things off.
Also, there is the matter of portrayal. All the characters were seriously lacking in sympathy: there is hardly a one there the reader will care to identify with. Many of the conversations (especially where a kind of pidgin English was used to parody the Ukrainians' imperfect grasp of the language) were narrated in a tone of mockery - and when an author mocks her own creations, how can the reader take them seriously?
The book Nikolai is writing, A Short History of Tractors in the Ukrainian
, is included as a sort of metaphor for the journey (historical, mental and physical) of the East European expatriate engineer, interested only in machines, from the communist East to the capitalist West. Nikolai's reading of excerpts of the book is interspersed with the main narrative throughout the novel, which though informative, failed to meld with the main story. The unspeakable horrors suffered by the family under Stalin and the Nazis somehow fail to make the impact they should, mainly because of the author's insistence on keeping up a comic tone.
However, three stars for a worthwhile story, and a social problem well-presented. But one is forced to think Ms. Lewycka would have created more of an impact if the book was written in dead seriousness. There is nothing more distressing than a joke which falls flat.