Thursday, May 24, 2007

Oh, those immigrants!

You are British and you don't like being flooded with all those Eastern European immigrants? Your council curses because they no speaka da lingo and the council needs to employ interpreters? And, oh no, Mrs Hodge, an immigrant herself and 'Industry' minister of the UK, says that it's outrageous that immigrants get council houses over people who are born in the UK?

Why don't you all just go and read Marina Lewycka's book 'Two Caravans'? You may remember Lewycka as the author of 'A short history of tractors in Ukrainian' about an old Ukrainian living in the UK, then in his widowerhood importing a young Ukrainian woman to become his wife - but all is not what it seems...

The cover of her latest book is designed in a similar style as that of her first novel, suggesting a slightly wonky potato print on very grainy paper, like presumably people imagine books to look like in Ukraine. Not having bought any there (don't understand them) I wouldn't know; though certainly the pokes for selling sunflower seeds will be made from the pages of grainy books.

Like her first book, 'Two Caravans' is also set in the Ukrainian community. This time it's the community of young migrant workers, who, being Ukrainian, are generally there illegally. Other migrants drift through as well. The two main protagonists first meet up in a strawberry farm in Kent, where the men and women live in separate, and tiny caravans. This might look romantic, but I've seen similar caravans, inhabited by the long-term poor, in Scotland (Dalrymple caravan park, which is now an estate of decent-sized houses) - and they ain't pretty. Especially if they are overpopulated. The female, who picked up in Dover and taken there by a guy in a black car, only just escapes his advances - clearly he has ambitions for her which she does not share. But does she escape his advances?

Things go wrong in the strawberry field and they try to leave the country, but cannot change their tickets. To live, they get involved in all sorts of other activities, for which they are ripped off, mostly. Lewycka has clearly researched her book well, and describes how illegal workers are ripped off right, left and centre - where they have to pay fees for their grotty accommodation, and rubbish food that is provided, and where they can get into all sorts of other troubles. One of the party of workers later finds himself in a chicken farm - the description of how the chickens (and indeed the workers) live (and die, or not, as the case may be) is horrifying.

Despite this extremely informative account of the life of these workers, who do jobs which most other people would not like to do, the book is also very funny. It's written as if told by a Ukrainian with almost perfect English, writing in very short, careful sentences. One of the other characters, an African brought up in what sounds like a bible colony, uses the most wonderful biblical language in his letters to his sister, and misinterprets everything he sees. Some of the incidents are totally bizarre, as for example (animal lovers, close your eyes now) when in the chicken farm the stun gun fails, and the chickens go alive into the boiling water which removes their feathers, only to emerge alive, naked and squawking at the other end and running all over the factory.

I thought that the plot line was a little bit predictable, having some knowledge of immigrant life in the UK thanks to the Guardian and other papers, and of course Eastern European knowledge. But for those who know nothing about Eastern Europe and the lives of its workers 'in the west' it's a fantastic read. You read for entertainment and you gain information thrown in for free. Can't be bad.

Interestingly a character much like the main character in the tractors book also makes a brief appearance in this book, living in a nursing home this time. Even more interestingly, looking up the author in amazon, it turns out that she has written many 'Carer's Handbooks'. I don't suppose these are funny, too. Bit of an autobiographical input then, at least into her first novel, and it probably was not hard for her to find folks to talk to for her second novel....

Highly recommendable - unputdownable, and a too quick read.