This was Monica Lewycka’s second novel after the very successful A short history of tractors in Ukrainian. It’s the story of Irina from the modern Ukraine who comes to Britain to work picking strawberries on a farm in Kent. There she meets Andriy from the industrial old Ukraine and two caravans full of other season workers.
The first half of the book I thought was the best – it looks at the lives of the workers, the exploitation from people traffickers and gangmasters and the horrible conditions in which they have to live and work – far from the ideal of Britain that they had been expecting. This part of the book is very good – and it’s also quite harrowing in places, an example being when Tomasz (a Pole) works for a day in a hellish chicken barn and factory. I thought the second half of the book was more disappointing as the workers flee the farm with one of the caravans to escape a gangster and go on a road trip through various parts of England. I also thought that this part of the book was over politicised and it seemed as if the author had her list of issues that she had to get into the novel whether or not it suited the actual story. The two halves of the story did not mesh well and it was almost like there were two books in one.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book. It was very funny in places – the yearning of Andriy to get to the paradise of Sheffield for example and a running joke about David Blunkett (a great visionary). It did also make me think about the food that we get from supermarkets and about how free-range might not exactly be what we think. Some of the characterisation was good and I liked the innocent Emanual from Malawi but some were not so believable and thought that there were too many co-incidences. to make the last half of the story believable. But I still found it an entertaining read