When nineteen-year-old Ukrainian schoolgirl Irina Blazhko arrives in the English countryside to begin life as a farmworker in Marina Lewycka’s new novel, Strawberry Fields, she first notices “the dazzling salty light dancing on the sunny field, the ripening strawberries, the little rounded trailer perched up on the hill and the oblong boxy trailer down in the corner of the field, the woods beyond, and the long, curving horizon” and dreamily thinks to herself, “So this is England.” Never mind that she has traveled by bus from “Kiev to Kent in fortytwo hours” and was met off the ferry in Dover by a gun-toting human trafficker named Vulk, who sports “a straggle of hair tied in a ponytail hanging down his back like an exhaust pipe.” He immediately snatches away Irina’s passport and working papers, pushes her into his black “mafia machine” of a car, subtracts from her salary a handful of greasy french fries she eats in the backseat, and makes clear his intentions to de-“flovver” her.
Like Chaucer’s celebrated pilgrims, who make competitive sport of swapping bawdy, allegorical, romantic, and even epistolary narratives while journeying through latefourteenth- century England, Irina—as well as her modern-day coworkers from Malaysia, China, Eastern Europe, and Africa—understands that one subject that lends itself to great storytelling is sheer survival, accompanied, of course, by intense mischief, delirious fantasizing, and impromptu merrymaking.
Irina’s comrades-in-(f)arms are Yola, the vulgar and opinionated Polish crew supervisor, and her pious niece, Marta; slick polyglot entrepreneur Vitaly; Andriy, a muscular and handsome Ukrainian coal miner; shy, letter-writing Emanuel from Malawi; the hygiene-challenged Tomasz; two giggling Asian girls; and a stray dog that adopts the ragtag band and whose thoughts are broadcast in bold-letter dog speak. The migrants toil for a red-faced English strawberry farmer whose wife runs him over in her sports coupe after catching him in fl agrante with Yola. Afraid of being caught by the authorities, the workers fl ee in a Land Rover and a rickety trailer home.
Here the novel accelerates into a raucous road show, and the group begins to splinter as it heads for Dover, with many setbacks and surprises en route. The Asian girls are lured to Amsterdam by the promise of respectable jobs as au pairs, but circumstances point to prostitution or some other insalubrious economy. Yola and Marta, accompanied by Tomasz, return to Poland. Vitaly surfaces as a low-level gangster, whose mysteriously acquired “mobilfon” becomes a well-used sight gag in Lewycka’s arsenal of screwball plot twists and turns. After a series of scenes that straddle brutality and buffoonery— including Tomasz’s murderously funny and mercifully short employment at a chicken slaughterhouse—Lewycka pulls from the threads of her story a romance between Irina and Andriy. The would-be lovers are tested by the degraded circumstances of life on the run in a foreign country, but even more so by their prejudices against each other. Andriy thinks Irina, who comes from the middle class and is a supporter of the Orange Revolution, is a naive snob, while she finds Andriy, who hails from a family of Donbas miners, stubborn, sweaty, and uncultured. The reader roots for these two as if they were contestants on an overheated reality-TV show.
The exaggerated tone, which allows for moments of respite and refl ection juxtaposed with unspeakable danger and darkest villainy, was first on display in Lewycka’s debut, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (2005), which was nominated for the Man Booker and Orange prizes. In that novel— which concerns two grown daughters who vie with their elderly engineer father over his decision to marry a busty Kiev divorcée— Lewycka dovetails the domestic dramas of the present with the family’s past tragedies, which are often revealed through the ingenious device of the father’s treatise on the history of the tractor. While antic and fast-paced, Strawberry Fields’s story also hints at the harsh history of Ukraine from the late nineteenth century to the present (especially the harrowing war years), its ethnic tensions, and its failed communism. In both novels, Lewycka’s writing throws off lively sparks of practical philosophy, passionate politics, and dark history. While traversing the precarious, soul-snatching world of migrant workers, Lewycka, a consummately entertaining author, never loses sight of fiction’s other agenda, to enlighten and instruct.
Whether the narrative peruses or perambulates, lyric gifts are everywhere in evidence, and Lewycka returns to these dewy stoptime moments like a doe to a salt lick. For Emanuel’s eighteenth birthday, Marta prepares an outdoor evening meal from the humble ingredients at hand—a skinned rabbit, sausages, fried bread, wood garlic, wild thyme—while in the valley, “a summery haze shimmers over the treetops and shadows are already gathering. The cut-crystal brilliance of the light becomes soft and muted, as though shining through layers of silk. The silver streamers of clouds have turned to pink, but the sky is still bright, and the sun has an hour or so to go before it touches the treetops. It is almost midsummer. A thrush sits on the branch of an ash tree in the copse, singing his heart out, and from the far side of the copse his mate calls back. It is the only sound to break the stillness, apart from the sound of a dog barking in the woods far away.”
Lewykca makes liberal use of such scenes, providing little windows of promise, of hope for the future. Or, as Irina’s father once told her and her mama, “Slavery begins when the heart loses hope. Hope is the first step toward freedom.” To which her mama replied, “I hope in that case you will learn one day to wash the dishes.” To which Andriy adds his own echo, while arguing with Irina about post-Soviet Ukraine: “What use is freedom without oil and gas?” This back and forth, as Irina and Andriy slowly make their way to north Britain, has all the earmarks of an argument, but their bickering quickly takes on a romantic sheen, the way the English countryside first appeared to Irina.
So—a reader must be forgiven for wanting to believe—this is love.
Lisa Shea’s writing appeared most recently in the anthology My Father Married Your Mother (Norton, 2006).