Thursday, September 13, 2007

Strawberry Fields

I met a Ukrainian girl at work yesterday. Our interaction was absolutely classic.

My boss introduced us and suggested I could practice my language skills with her. She showed no interest in me or the fact I’ve lived in Ukraine or speak Ukrainian.

Instead, she simply said to my boss: “I don’t speak Ukrainian.” The boss was surprised: “What do you mean? How can you not speak Ukrainian?”

“Because I am from a Russian-speaking family and lived in a Russian-speaking part of the country.”

Discussion closed.

Marina is the classic petulant Ukrainian girl. Ahh, how I love Ukraine. But it is because of people like Marina that I just couldn’t love Marina Lewycka’s latest book Strawberry Fields.

I expedited this book before leaving for Paris. I thoroughly enjoyed Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian and had high expectations for her follow up.

Not surprisingly, the sequel is never as good as the original. (Okay, technically, Strawberry Fields isn’t a sequel but, oddly enough, the father in Short History makes a cameo appearance).

Strawberry Fields follows several migrant workers who pick strawberries on a British farm. Two of the workers are from Ukraine: Irina from Kyiv and Andriy from Donestk.

Lewycka comes from a Ukrainian background, so I am surprised she has these two characters speak to each other in Ukrainian. As Marina reminded me so well yesterday, neither of the characters live in Ukrainian-speaking areas of the country nor would likely have been raised by Ukrainian-speaking families.

But I’m getting nitpicky. The story is interesting and eye opening as the migrant workers move from job to job and consort with shady characters who constantly seek to take advantage of them.

However, Lewycka tries to get too cutesy in her writing. She jumps between the characters, sometimes writing in first person, sometimes in limited third. The point of view is inconsistent, distracting, and unnecessary. And although the reader gets a glimpse into the minds and hearts of some characters—particularly two Chinese girls—they completely disappear from the narrative midway through the book.

Strawberry Fields is a better book than I’m giving it credit for. However, when an author has the potential for better, it’s always a disappointment.

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