Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Strawberry Fields by Marina Lewycka

strawberryDespite the bucolic title, this is a novel about a parallel universe. But not in the sci fi sense, rather one that exists in our modern society that most of us aren’t aware of. Taking place in England, it involves workers who come from other countries to work on farms, in food production and other menial labor. While workers come from areas as diverse as Malawi and Malaysia, the largest group is from Eastern Europe, the former Soviet satellites whose crumbled economies allowed gangsters to gain control. These crooks form syndicates who prey on desperate immigrants, confiscating their passports and docking most of their pay as “expenses” for such things as vermin infested “accommodations”. Some of the women are “traded” into prostitution, as various petty gangsters barter humans as they climb the “mobilfon VIP” ladder. Though many of the workers are well educated in their own lands, the language barrier and culture shock makes them easy targets for the creepy VIPs who lie and sometimes kidnap them.
This environment, which is described dispassionately by the author, is where our half dozen main characters find themselves, specifically on a strawberry farm run by a slimy farmer. Their diverse personalities makes for a lively mix of conflicts and friendships; from the bossy Yola from Poland, Emmanuel from Africa, to the 2 Asian girls, but the focus eventually settles on 2 young Ukrainians, Irina, a professor’s daughter and Andriy, a former miner. When an accident occurs, the immigrants flee the farm, all packed into a tiny trailer, along with Dog, a big stray mongrel who is quite endearing. The bulk of the novel is what happens to them on their journey.
It’s a somewhat dark story told from various viewpoints, even briefly, Dog’s, but has an almost suspenseful flow with the villains and romances. The author shows you the harsh lives the immigrants lead, how they are snared and victimized, without ever being preachy. It’s a strange little book, probably because of the unfamiliar world it portrays, but the characters grow on you and you wish the good ones well.

Penguin 2007 294 pp. ISBN 978-1-59420-137-0

7 comments on “Strawberry Fields by Marina Lewycka

  1. rosyb
    May 4, 2009

    This sounds like the same book as “Two Caravans”. Has it has a title change for the US maybe? I went to an event about this in the Edinburgh book Fringe at Word Power Books. Marina Lewycka is immensely warm and charming and was talking about dealing with expectations after “Tractor” and changing direction slightly. She also told us how skype and the internet has totally transformed her family’s experience – they managed to find the Ukrainian side of the family and have managed to connect with all their relatives in the Ukraine and speak to them regularly through skype. It makes you realise how very isolated and cut off people were in the past and how they were often cut off totally from their entire families when they emigrated.

    Very interesting woman anyway.

  2. Moira
    May 4, 2009

    I just checked, Rosy. Spot on. It IS the same book. I wonder why they changed the title … and which was the original one?

    I knew I recognized the author’s name, but wasn’t sure why until you said ‘Ukraine’ and ‘Tractor’ …

    I have to admit I struggled with the ‘Tractor’ book … I sort of didn’t ‘get it’ somehow. Is this one very different?

  3. annebrooke
    May 4, 2009

    Oh, Moira, I’m sooooo glad you said that. I utterly hated the wretched tractors novel – couldn’t even finish it. Dull and heartless, I thought. So very glad it wasn’t just me who struggled …

    Axxx

  4. rosyb
    May 4, 2009

    How funny. I really enjoyed it. I didn’t find it heartless at all, Anne. I very much liked the father character. And the slight spikiness. But very affectionate I thought it was basically.

    I know a couple of people who left their own countries and now live in Scotland and they really related to and loved this book. I think it does capture that slight dislocation yet bond that people can feel across the generations – particularly when the older generation carried a whole different way of thinking that doesn’t necessarily quite fit with where you find yourself now.

    Be interested to know what Lisa made of it.

  5. Jen P
    May 4, 2009

    This is still on my TBR pile – thanks for the reminder and things to look out for. Marina Lewycka spoke at the Readers’ Event organized by the Library/ County Council in Falmouth in Sept. 2008, and said that the UK title Two Caravans was changed to Strawberry Fields for the US market because ‘caravans’ doesn’t translate or come across with the same meaning well – motor homes, camper vans, not the same. The covers are similar though – I love the off center old Eastern bloc style. Her new book is out in July 2009 – We Are All Made of Glue – set in London and the Middle East.

  6. Jackie
    May 4, 2009

    I had no idea of the title change! But I agree that caravans would’ve drawn a blank for most Americans (but then, doesn’t everything?), as we call them RV’s or motor homes. I haven’t read “Tractors”, but am thinking about it now.

  7. Lisa
    May 10, 2009

    “Be interested to know what Lisa made of it.”

    Rosy, I’ve only read the Tractors book, which I quite liked. Wouldn’t say I loved it, but thought it was good. However, my mum (daughter of Armenian mother) absolutely loved it. Found it hilarious, roared with laughter throughout and recommended it to all her friends.

    Jackie, I’ve been meaning to read this one for ages, so thanks for the reminder. Great review.

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This entry was posted on May 4, 2009 by in Entries by Jackie, Fiction: general, Fiction: humour and tagged , , , , .

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