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Strawberry Fieldsby Marina Lewycka
Synopses & Reviews
From the author of the international bestseller A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian comes a tender and hilarious novel about a crew of migrant workers from three continents who are forced to flee their English strawberry field for a journey across all of England in pursuit of their various dreams of a better future.
Somewhere in the heart of the green and pleasant land called England is a valley filled with strawberries. A group of migrant workers, who hail from Eastern Europe, China, and Africa have come here to harvest them for delivery to British supermarkets, and end up living in two small trailer homes, a men's trailer and a woman's trailer. They are all seeking a better life (and in their different ways they are also, of course, looking for love) and they've come to England, some legally, some illegally, to find it. They are supervised — some would say exploited — by Farmer Leaping, a red-faced Englishman who treats everyone equally except for the Polish woman named Yola, the boss of the crew, who favors him with her charms in exchange for something a little extra on the side. But the two are discreet, and all is harmonious in this cozy vale — until the evening when Farmer Leaping's wife comes upon him and Yola and does what any woman would do in this situation: She runs him down in her red sports car. By the time the police arrive the migrant workers have piled into one of the trailer homes and hightailed it out of their little arcadia, thus setting off one of the most enchanting, merry, and moving picaresque journeys across the length and breadth of England since Chaucer's pilgrims set off to Canterbury.
Along the way, the workers' fantasies about England keep rudely bumpinginto the ignominious, brutal, and sometimes dangerous realities of life on the margins for migrs in the new globalized labor market. Some of them meet terrible ends, some give up and go back home, but for those who manage to hang in for the full course of this madcap ride, the rewards — like the strawberries — prove awfully sweet — especially for the young Ukrainians from opposite sides of the tracks, Andriy and Irina, whose initial mutual irritation blossoms into love.
"'U.K.-based Lewycka, a Booker and Orange Prize nominee for 2005's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, follows up with a Chaucer-inspired tale of migrant workers trapped at global capital's thuggish bottom. After being 'helped' into England by men like Vulk, an armed, lecherous creep of indeterminate former east bloc origins, a disparate group of strawberry pickers begins a pilgrimage-like search for labor across the countryside after their philandering boss is run over and crippled by his wife. Among them are two Ukrainians: Irina, a nave teenager from Kiev, and Andriy, a former coal miner. After a brief stop in Canterbury, the workers — from Malawi, China, Malaysia and elsewhere — arrive in Dover with their loyal dog. There, they unexpectedly meet shady 'recruitment consultant' Vitaly, who promises jobs in 'the dynamic resurgence of the poultry industry.' The plot moves slowly, and things get worse for the group. Lewycka doesn't have a perfect command of all the cultures she aims to represent, making some of her satires broad and unfunny. There are, however, captivating scenes (some not for the squeamish), and many of the characters are complex and multifaceted, Irina and Andriy in particular. As a send up of capitalism's grip on the global everyman, Lewycka's ensemble novel complements Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan.' Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"I'm glad I'm not Marina Lewycka's agent, because I've done a terrible job of pitching 'Strawberry Fields.' Every time I try to describe it to friends, it comes out like this: 'See, there are these Eastern European migrant workers in England, and they go from one terrible job to the next, and they can't catch a break to save their lives. One of them is kidnapped by a pimp, two others are pretty much... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) sold into slavery, and there's a mongrel who escaped from a dogfighting ring. ... ' If anybody's still listening by this point, the next line pretty much clears the room. 'And it's really quite funny.' Of course, it's more than just funny. It's also sad and wise and tender and generous and even sexy. But it's not a book that makes large claims for itself, any more than its characters do. Irina, a recent emigre from Kiev, can't imagine anything remotely interesting about her colleagues: 'a bunch of strawberry pickers living in two trailers.' And yet among these pickers we find: Tomasz, a melancholy folk singer with feet only a dog could love. Emanuel, a devout Malawian who has come to England seeking 'canal knowledge.' Andriy, a Ukrainian miner's son pining for his long-ago Sheffield sweetheart, an 'Angliska rosa' with the improbable name of Vagvaga Riskegipd. And Yola, the petite and voluptuous Polish supervisor who dreams of finding a father for her Down syndrome son and who, at night, consolidates her management position by sleeping with the farm's owner. That leads to a nasty showdown with the farmer's wife and a Ferrari, and the little 'Garden of England' is soon dispersed, as the strawberry pickers scatter across the country, taking jobs in nursing homes, in restaurants, on fishing piers and, in a sequence as horrific as anything by Upton Sinclair, in a poultry processing plant, where the chickens 'look more like misshapen ducks — huge bloated bodies on top of stunted little legs, so that they seemed to be staggering grotesquely under their own weight — those of them that can move at all.' Periodically, a plot threatens to emerge out of all this. Emanuel hunts for his sister; Yola narrows down her matrimonial choices; Andriy and Irina embark on a tentative romance of their own, threatened at intervals by her snobbery (she's a professor's daughter, after all) and his stubbornness, not to mention a shady operator named Vitaly and a vile gangster-procurer named Vulk. But mostly Lewycka is interested in how people keep from being strangled by the 'tentacles of globalization' in a world 'run by mobilfonmen.' It is to the author's credit that her satirical impulse never disguises the terrible sadness of her characters' lives. If anything, the comedy and drama draw from the same source: the gap between dreams and numbing reality. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, for instance, at the Indian shopkeeper who worships Julia Child: 'She is a lady of extreme age and wisdom. In her long years, which unfortunately are now over, she gave many cheery indications of the important things in life.' 'Let's Talk English' is the guidebook most cited here, and Lewycka is pleased to let her people do just that. Emanuel, who likens his adopted language to 'a coilsome and slippery serpent,' speaks of being 'beloned' at the age of 12 and waiting for someone 'with beatings in my heart.' That nasty Vulk, with his rattail and his 'chip-fat smile,' pockets Irina's passport with a snarling 'I keep for you. Is many bed people in England. Can stealing from you' before bidding adieu: 'Bye-bye, little flovver. Ve meet again. Maybe ve mekka possibility?' Dialect humor, of course, is as old as the hills, but the sentence constructions of Lewycka's migrants suggest people hurling themselves at the language as fiercely as they chase the capitalist dream. (Even the dog who accompanies them speaks in his own upper-case Joycean idiom: 'I AM DOG I AM GOOD DOG I SIT WITH MY MAN I EAT DOG FOOD MEAT MAN EATS MAN FOOD.') That dream is relinquished only under great duress as the strawberry pickers must choose whether to stay in England or go home. Even if some of them end up back in their homelands, 'Strawberry Fields' suggests there will be plenty more to take their place. Ukrainians and Russians and Poles and Africans, young and not-so-young, chasing the good life and, along the way, subjecting themselves to untold exploitation and abuse — and the possibility of companionship and laughter. One way or another, these strawberry fields are forever." Reviewed by Louis Bayard, a novelist and reviewer, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Strawberry Fields stands along the best of Zadie Smith and Monica Ali. It is sometimes outrageous, sometimes bawdy and constantly entertaining." Seattle Times
"[A] comedy about a somber subject: the exploitation of migrant workers....But in Lewycka's picaresque version, comic nearly always beats tragic." Los Angeles Times
"At a time when volcanic shifts in the global economy are creating new fissures between peoples and societies, Strawberry Field should be compulsory reading for anyone who wishes to delve into the human stories trapped within the cracks." St. Petersburg Times
"Lewycka manages to rein in her sometimes sophomoric tone with wry insight. It is finally the author's keen understanding of how a global consciousness and labor market have come together with a changing European economy that gives this book its gravity and strength." Library Journal
"The author's ambition is laudable. So is her skill in creating characters that flirt with ethnic commonplaces and then transcend them." Newsday
"Some of the comic energy of the novel emerges from the difficulties characters encounter with the language barrier....Strawberry-sweet, but not too syrupy." Kirkus Reviews
"Lewycka's stylistic quirks can sometimes fall flat...but the jostle of voices creates an effervescent comedy, beneath which lies a more sombre look at the costs of globalization." New Yorker
"Strawberry Fields contains bushels of food for thought. Its digestibility depends on the stomach of each reader." San Francisco Chronicle
About the Author
Marina Lewycka is the author of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, which has been translated into 30 languages, has sold more than 750,000 copies worldwide, and was nominated for the Booker and Orange Prizes. She is married, with a grown-up daughter, and lives in England.
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