fiction, review

We are All Made of Glue

Unlike in her two previous works, in We are All Made of Glue Marina Lewycka comes up with an issue about Israel-Palestine conflict. Through this third book of hers published in 2009, Lewycka doesn’t try to take sides, nor defend anyone, any religious beliefs, any peoples, or any nations involved. With her typically hilarious, witty, annoyingly slapstick style, she seems to try to use an analogy to explain, from her personal viewpoint and understanding, what actually happens and why nobody should take the blame.

Georgie Sinclair is on her way to dissolving her marriage to Rip, her husband, after an impulsive, childish fight over what is more important: a toothbrush holder or a social project to save the world. Before the divorce is even final, she decides to move to a new house in Highbury. There, she meets the mysterious Mrs. Naomi Shapiro, who picks reusable things from trash cans like a scavenger and lives in a big, dirty, run-down house called Canaan House. Georgie then discovers that the old Jewish woman lives alone with nobody to care for her or even to take care of her living place. So she tries to help in some ways, bringing her food and wine and helping her clean and maintain that hovel she calls home. But then a problem occurs when Mrs. Shapiro gets an accident and the social worker forces her to sell the big house and move to a care home for the elderly. Mrs. Shapiro asks Georgie to save her from the terrible ordeal and not to let anyone sell the house. In the midst of fulfilling Mrs. Shapiro’s request, Georgie finds fragments of the mystery surrounding Canaan House and the old woman’s true identity, which is related closely to the founding of the country Israel for the Jews in the land of Palestine. Through her secret investigation, Georgie, who knows nothing about religions much less about international politics, discovers many unbelievable, horrifying, bloody facts about the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

I find it interesting that the story is narrated from Georgie’s point of view. As a freelance writer, she is described as melancholy, childish, a little wild inside, but loving and helpful. She is a representation of average, ordinary, innocent people who only get information from the media and know actually nothing about politics at all. She is like many other people, looking at the conflict between Israel and Palestine from the outside and sometimes daringly drawing their own conclusions. On the other hand, Mrs. Naomi Shapiro is a Jew who tends to draw a line between “us” and “them”, but she loves peace and animals. What funny is, she is also portrayed as an old woman who likes to act and dress like she’s still young and beautiful and flirt with a much younger man. It is in her nature to do everything for someone she dearly loves, and that’s what brings her to the territorial conflict over the Canaan House she’s been living in for years.

When you peruse the whole narrative carefully, you will find that Lewycka uses the Canaan House as a metaphor to describe the condition prevailing in the land of Jerusalem. Some of you may not agree and think that it’s a false description, but I think what she elaborates here is quite fair. No one to blame, nothing to claim, nobody can even say whose land it is. And at the end, it’s a very silly thing to fight over it when everybody has a share. As always, Lewycka never tries to give any solutions to the problems she addresses in her novels, she only wants to indirectly say that fighting and warring over something never benefit anybody and eventually will only screw what a little peace we have up.

We are All Made of Glue is packaged as a slapstick comedy with a touch of drama. It has all the features we usually find in Marina Lewycka’s writing: funny, full of typically British humor, but the narrative runs deep and is detailed in addressing the issue she brings up. From this book, we can feel some kind of invitation to make peace instead of giving up to our gnawing desire to possess something. A bond between two people, here it is symbolized by glue, is more important than anything: conflicts and differences, our homeland or where we should live, or maybe our personal/political interests. The narrative includes the idea in a rather subtle way, and not even for a second Lewycka tries to dictate to the reader what they should think about it. But, I have to say, reading this book is a very fun way to understand such an issue from a different point of view. Only the plot is not as amazingly delivered, it is too slow at the beginning and then seems to run quickly to its end. Also, the way to the conclusion of the conflict is not as smooth as I expected before, and at the end of the book everything seems to be just okay all of a sudden.

In conclusion, Marina Lewycka’s We are All Made of Glue is an amazing work, with an extraordinary idea and interesting content. The characterizations are all well-depicted, in a hilarious way, too, as Lewycka’s distinctive feature always is. Despite its awkward plot, the narrative is still captivating and gluing us to the end. It’s very much recommended.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Two Caravans

Capitalism and communism will always be warring in silence, though sometimes it’s too obvious to remain subtle, and we will always find ourselves taking the capitalist side. It is its promise of prosperity and luxury that makes it successfully invasive, spreading and gnawing away at the world inside out, demanding the evil of us in return for the money it generously hands us. Sometimes, it does not only demand our evil side of self, but also our suffering and sacrifice. This is what is reflected in the novel Two Caravans. Set in the capitalist England, and imaginary Ukraine at times, this second book of Marina Lewycka still, in the tradition of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, talks about how attractive money can be and how a rich, prosperous country will never lose its magnetic features.

Two Caravans is a comedy about some immigrants, seemingly illegal, running to England in search of a better life. Tricked by an evil, greedy agent, Irina, Andriy, Vitaly, Emmanuel, Marta, Yola, Tommaz, and two Chinese girls coming from two different countries (China and Malaysia) have to settle for an underpaid strawberry-picking job while they’re dreaming of earning big money. And that’s only for starters. They also have to willingly surrender their lives to the agent controlling their fate and sucking them dry, get their wages cut for many deductions. They run, needless to say, but they cannot run away from the challenges and problems of being illegal immigrants. They’re separated, desperate, almost getting caught, and running all the times like wanted prisoners. And all the while, Irina and Andriy must also bear the inevitably sparking love between them, love that seems to be hindered by their opposite viewpoints on their home country, Ukraine, which has turned its back on them with arms wide open to communism.

All the characters appear in Two Caravans are people desperate enough about their future to leave their home to pursue what a rich capitalist country has to offer, even those who hate capitalism. They all have the same dream, the same aim: money and prosperity, despite the different backgrounds and cultures. And Lewycka has successfully described their each characterization in vivid clarity, without leaving behind a single detail of what they think of, how they behave, and even how they talk in awkward English. There are also several more characters in the novel, but Lewycka doesn’t seem to have difficulty in portraying them all, and in a rudely hilarious way, too. What’s so bothering is, unfortunately, the evil character which is supposed to be the prime attraction. His characterization is somehow over the top, however still funny it may seem, and devilishly annoying to read.

The whole point of this book is, obviously, how we are caught in the middle of capitalism and communism, showcasing mostly how people struggle for prosperity in the land of capitalists, and what communism has caused us to suffer. It’s like there is no way out. Living in capitalism makes you act like zombies, while staying in communism only gives you starvation. Capitalism can promise you many things, anything you want, but you have to pay it with your blood, with your being a robot doing what people tell you to and, more often than not, without considering the consequences. People are running away from communism, but at what cost? It’s not only competition we have to deal with in a capitalist world, but the loss of our nature as human beings, too. Both capitalism and communism have their own negative aspects, although people think it is communism which is more dangerous to human kind.

Marina Lewycka, once again, succeeds in presenting to us all those things above in her hilarious, light comedy. She consistently refuses to use a heavy, serious narrative in speaking out her mind, but that doesn’t mean that she’s not serious at all. She implies her stern opinion by way of a painfully laughable comical story, with a complicated yet compact plot interesting enough to make me bear 1/3 of the book, which is quite boring. Thankfully, the bumpy road all the characters have to take along the rest of the book helps me enjoy it immensely. The surprises and quirky tension lacing almost every funny scene also assist the story to heighten up its great impression. Some scenes are too silly and slapstick sometimes, but I’ve learned that it’s been Lewycka’s typical characteristic in writing. I can’t complain. And she never cares to use such a beautiful, intricate language, either.  She doesn’t need to, because what she wants to say is naturally supposed to be expressed in satirically literal sentences, just the way they are. Two Caravans is indubitably a nice work of literary composition, inviting you to laugh at the world with its laughable story.

So, all things considered, I’d like to recommend this book to anyone who has a particular interest in issues of the world, but may want to spare themselves from the trouble of reading something heavy and depressing. Two Caravans is very enlightening, smart, funny, intriguing, thoughtful, and delivering its message in a subtle yet poignant way.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

Capitalism never seems funnier in Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, a work of comedy fiction which tells much of the magnetic power of money. Set in today’s England, the novel hilariously, yet painfully, concedes that prosperity will always and only be owned by a powerful country, where money is circling. It surely is not an epic saga about the Cold War, but it presents to us the bitter, complicated fact of the silently warring ideologies all the same, namely capitalism and communism. In comically satirical tone, Lewycka tries to point out fairly what is wrong with both, and how twisting ourselves free of them is impossible.

Upon her mother’s death, Nadezhda receives a call from her father and being told that he is going to get married, again, to a much younger woman. Being in his 80s, the news doesn’t seem to make sense and comes as a shock to Nadezhda, who dearly loves her mother. But Mr. Mayevskyj, a now British citizen who has managed to run away from Stalin’s communist regime gripping the former Russia, stubbornly believes that only he can save the younger woman from the harshness of life in Ukraine after the collapse of the biggest communist nation in the world and insists to play a hero. Valentina, the 36-year-old beautiful woman with enormous boobs Mr. Mayevskyj intends to marry, is apparently in dire need of a British passport and work permit so she can get out of Ukraine permanently with his teenage son. Faintly, Nadezhda can smell Valentina’s ulterior motive and tells her sister Vera about it right away. Previously in dispute over their mother’s legacy, they are then reconciled and set to work together to drive Valentina out of their father’s house for, somehow, they know Valentina will only suck their father dry to get the prosperous life capitalism has to offer.

None of the characters here are portrayed as protagonists, nor any of them are the antagonist. Nadezhda, the narrator, may be the good one, loving and caring for her mother before her death, attentively caring for a very old father with an ongoing project on the history of tractors in Ukrainian, but we cannot let go of her weaknesses. And while Vera seems to be wicked and sly, she is a woman who’s willing to do everything for her family. But most of the time, Valentina is the one who gets my sole attention. Her role may seem small and evil in its very basic sense, but, to my way of thinking, Valentina is the epitome of a capitalist ideologue, having been the “victim” of communism, and therefore the motor of the whole story.

I can say A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is basically built on the unpleasant fact that, when it comes to money, people are completely willing to do everything, even the unthinkable. Wherever money goes, they sure as rain will absent-mindedly follow it. Capitalism has it all, prosperity, luxury, life guarantee, and that’s where money lives and breeds. However, capitalism also demands the evil of you, or you won’t survive otherwise. This is what is embodied in the character of Valentina, in all of us, to say the least. The whole story of this book drives home to me the unrelenting gory power of money, without putting aside the dictatorship and brutality of communism. Lewycka doesn’t take sides in writing this story, instead, she puts everything in balance. She doesn’t feel that she needs to give some resolution, because there is no exact resolution for it, but she makes it obvious that the hunger for money is the core problem of everyone.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is written in a comical, satirical way, a true comedy in its nature. Nevertheless, much as it is critical of the ideologies anchoring around our necks, it doesn’t try to be cynical nor sarcastic. The way Lewycka narrates it is not necessarily extraordinary, but still stinging to the bone. It is a light story, I would say, and hilariously funny, but it also forces us to laugh at the undeniable nature of ourselves (human beings) and the way of the world. The characters described by Lewycka are so natural, too, depicting the way we are in real life. Lewycka also makes fun of how Eastern European immigrants coming to the UK linguistically mess up the standard English pronunciation, which is a little bit quirky. The only problem about this book is, ironically, its jokes. They are just too much and too slapstick to my taste sometimes.

At the end, I would say that A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is the sort of general fiction I’ve always been looking for. You don’t have to be too serious to deliver some issues in a book and successful in it. And Marina Lewycka has proven it with this novel. So, I highly recommend it, either for your joy or kindling your empathy.

Rating: 4/5