STRAWBERRY FIELDS by Marina Lewycka (Penguin), 294 pages, $30 cloth. Rating: NNN
Think it's impossible to write a screwball comedy about the plight of migrant workers? One that's as skilfully written as it is entertaining?
In Marina Lewycka's second novel, clumsy romance gone awry meets incisive social commentary on global capitalism on a cinematic travelling road show through the British countryside.
Lewycka, author of A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian, nominated for both the Orange and the Booker Prize, has delivered another fast-paced and hilarious novel.
The book opens in a strawberry field near Kent where two trailers house teams of workers who pick berries to be sold in British supermarkets. They are treated deplorably but make more money than they would in their countries of origin - Poland, Malaysia, Ukraine, Zambia. They have some wild adventures while on the run after an unfortunate (but funny) criminal incident.
At the heart of the story is Irina, a young professor's daughter from Kiev and supporter of the Orange Revolution. She initially dislikes Andriy, a coal miner with communist leanings from Eastern Ukraine, because he's uncultured and poor. Andriy thinks she's a silly, privileged girl with no sense. Sparks fly in the classic cross-class way, but not before a whole lot of buildup.
Lewycka brings a cast of disparate characters beautifully to life. I was, however, pulled out of the story every few chapters when the dog, a mutt who adopts the travelling caravan as his own, speaks in abrupt capital letters in an inane stream of redundant declarations. It's an innovative idea, but the result is jarring, leaving the impression that the editor dropped the ball. You could just skim these passages.
Still, it's a fun, ambitious and solid novel.
Lewycka reads Friday (October 19), 8 pm, at the Premiere Dance Theatre and is interviewed onstage with Vendela Vida Saturday (October 20), 1 pm, at the Studio Theatre.