Every Saturday morning of my seventeenth and eighteenth years, I drove from Dover, where my family lives, to Folkestone, where I had a weekend job. I took an A road to avoid the lorries on the M20, but sometimes they would find my route and I’d have to follow one along the cliff road until it came to the lay-by outside the village of Capel-le-Ferne, and pulled over. Early one morning, passing a lorry parked in that lay-by, I saw a man slipping from the back of it into the bushes. I realised later I’d seen someone arrive in England illegally, out of the corner of my eye. I’m not sure what Marina Lewycka would make of this; in 2005, Lewycka compared being an unpublished author to being an asylum seeker. ‘You know where you belong,’ she said, ‘but the gate is guarded … you try everything – different fonts, different noms de plume. You take out all the adverbs, then put them back in again. You spend hours refining your synopsis. You know it must be possible, because you see the Published Ones walking around on the other side of the frontier, bathed in an aura of publishedness.’
In Marina Lewycka’s fiction, people usually seen at the edges are moved to the centre. In her first book, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, she tells us about a marriage between an elderly Ukrainian man, who came to Britain after the Second World War, and a younger woman newly arrived from the Ukraine. Her new book, Two Caravans, has as joint protagonists a group of migrants who meet strawberry-picking on a Kent farm. Lewycka’s fictional world speaks of 3D jobs (dirty, dangerous or difficult), and of the impact of globalisation on irregular migration and sex trafficking. The subject-matter is one reason for her first book’s popularity: one way or another immigration is rarely out of the news. In 1998, ‘Asylum-seekers ate my donkey!’ was a headline in the Dover Express. Now, the same Dover Express readers are falling over themselves to buy Polish soup in the busiest, and best, café in town.
Two Caravans begins with sunrise over a Kentish strawberry field. There are two caravans next to the field, one for women and one for men. Yola, the Polish supervisor, has a single bunk, her niece Marta another and two Chinese girls (Yola can’t ‘get the hang of their names’) share a pull-out double bed. In the other caravan, Ukrainian Andriy, Malawian Emanuel and Vitaly, who speaks Russian, Ukrainian and Polish, sleep in the sitting-room, with Polish Tomasz in the only bedroom. The farmer who owns the field, Mr Leapish, had suggested that Tomasz and Emanuel share a bed, but Emanuel refused, explaining in a whisper to Andriy: ‘In my country homosexualisation is forbidden.’ ‘Is OK,’ Andriy replied. ‘No homosex, only bad stink,’ referring to Tomasz’s trainers. About to join them is 19-year-old Irina, fresh from the Ukraine, who is being transported from Dover to the strawberry field by Vulk, who in Irina’s eyes is ‘a person of minimum culture, wearing a horrible black fake-leather jacket, like a comic-strip gangster – what a koshmar! – it creaked as he walked.’ Irina is left at the farm, Vulk drives off with her passport and papers in the pocket of his creaky leather jacket.
Much of the humour comes from the characters’ observations of each other. Irina ranks each member of the strawberry-picking team in a hierarchy of culture, the Chinese girls first and Andriy, the son of a miner from Donbas, last. Irina’s snobbery sanctions the reader’s laughter: it’s OK to laugh at people if they are already laughing at each other. More uneasy laughter comes from Irina and Andriy’s ideas of England. Irina looks forward ‘to meeting a gentleman in a bowler hat like Mr Brown in my Let’s Talk English book, who looks supremely dashing and romantic, with his tight suit and rolled-up umbrella, and especially the intriguing bulge in his trouser-zip area.’ Andriy is enamoured of ‘Let’s Talk English Mrs Brown, with your tiny waist, and tailored spotted blouse’. Lewycka won the 2005 Saga Award for Wit; but for each bit of social comedy, there is a less hard-won joke about penises. Irina and Andriy can only be disappointed, as they will be, by Mr Leapish’s Kentish Tory narrowmindedness, but their faith in the existence of Mr and Mrs Brown’s England persists. In this early part of the book, the pickers’ dislike of each other combined with their indiscriminate love for the UK brings their view very close to the Daily Mail’s: beautiful country, shame about the foreigners.
At first, things go well at the farm. Marta, an advocate of the food for free movement, improvises a summer pudding from a bowl of strawberries marinating in ‘cool tea, with sugar and some wild mint leaves’ which she ‘puts into a bowl lined with slices of white bread’ to make a birthday treat ‘for Emanuel, of whom she is especially fond. There are no candles, but later there will be stars.’ The cute multiculturalism is complete when Tomasz gets out his guitar. ‘And so united in song we enjoyed the Radiance of the evening,’ Emanuel writes in a letter to his sister. The mood is broken by Mrs Leapish’s discovery that her husband has been having an affair with Yola, so Yola is fired, and the others leave too, threatened with the police, and not wanting to abandon her. They couple one caravan to a Range Rover borrowed from the farm and set off. In the confusion, Vulk returns and abducts Irina.
Everyone has their own idea of what to do next. Vitaly disappears, Yola wants to get to Dover and then back to Poland, the Chinese girls hope to find better paid work in London and Emanuel also wants to go to London to find his sister, a nurse. Andriy, despite being bottom of Irina’s cultural hierarchy, wants to rescue her from Vulk, but Yola wins and they all head for Dover. There the two Polish women and Tomasz find Vitaly, transformed. He is now a recruitment consultant (‘“Dynamic employment solution. Cutting edge fwhit fwhit” – he does a quick double slicing movement with the edge of his hand – “organisational answer for all your flexible staffing need”’), and offers all three jobs on a poultry farm, which, impressed, they accept. After asking whether they have boyfriends, he offers the Chinese girls jobs in Amsterdam, looking after ‘children in family of diplomat … you will have your own elite apartment, and you will travel everywhere by boat.’ Andriy and Emanuel have come to a dead end in their search for Irina, so spend their days fishing off Dover’s Admiralty Pier and selling their catch to local buyers. Soon they too are recruited to the poultry farm.
Before Lewycka published A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian at the age of 58, she wrote books for Age Concern, short guides to looking after elderly people with hearing difficulties or who were partially sighted. Such knowledge was important to her first novel, which was honest about the difficulties encountered by children caring for their parents and realistic about things like paying for residential care. This kind of detail matters to her fiction; the appeal of her books is the access they offer to a partly obscured world. Two Caravans has been carefully researched: too carefully – the novel only works when the story comes first, which it doesn’t always.
Tomasz is the first to arrive at Buttercup Meadow Farmfresh Poultry. He is to prepare the mature chicken ‘crop’ to be transported for slaughter, grabbing the overfed chickens by their weak legs and flinging them into cages. One of the last chickens to be caught is made into a ‘spinning and screeching’ football, feathers ‘flying everywhere’. Tomasz catches it and carries it outside, even managing a Richard Curtis one-liner when asked what he’s doing. The bleak world of the chicken factory – Yola plumps up breast meat on polystyrene trays, Marta sorts whole birds from mangled ones, dreaming Nigellaishly of the best ways to eat them – is built up to be destroyed with some deft farce involving a Romanian supervisor interrupting toilet breaks, a Poultry Farm Workers Union representative, a dog called Dog, and Emanuel and Andriy’s arrival with the caravan.
The pickers escape to Dover. Marta, Yola and Tomasz board the next ferry, and we reach what might be the story’s natural ending, as five of the eight protagonists have been dispensed with. Lewycka’s story, which once seemed to be about migrants seeking seasonal work, now becomes a story about almost everything else. Emanuel and Andriy have professed aims: finding Emanuel’s sister, rescuing Irina from Vulk, but the already roomy plot now meanders to an upper-middle-class family house in Richmond, to a nursing home, to an environmental protest camp. Lewycka’s novel is now about curiosity: the characters’, who follow any promising turn of events; the author’s, who writes her characters into any spot she pleases; and the ‘nosy-poky’ readers’. The story allows the edge to become the centre because it has dispensed with a centre altogether.
With Dog’s help, Irina has been discovered. She’d been on the run from Vulk’s oleaginous advances, sleeping in outhouses and trekking cross country during the day. Relieved to be found, she goes along with Andriy and Dog to a nursing home in Peterborough, where one of the residents is Nikolai Mayevskyj. We last saw Mr Mayevskyj practising yoga at Sunny Bank, a sheltered housing complex, at the end of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. In that book he was causing his daughters bother by insisting on marrying Valentina, a younger Ukrainian woman with expensive tastes and a few weeks left on her visa; here he proposes to several of the female residents and takes apart the gearbox of his much loved 1937 Francis Burnett motorbike, to Matron’s annoyance.
The earlier novel is narrated by Nikolai’s daughter Nadia, but is fascinated by Valentina. Nadia thinks she is above gossip, a ‘postmodern woman’ who has ‘a husband who cooks polenta’, but she describes with relish Valentina’s ‘peach-pink pearlised’ appearance, her Ukrainglish insults (‘you plenty-money meanie’) and her ‘boil-in-bag’ cooking. Valentina’s devotion to wringing all she can out of British society is a foil to Nadia’s conversion from Guardian-carrying liberal to ‘Mrs Flog ’em and send ’em home’. Valentina does get sent back to the Ukraine, though not without her spoils: a brown gas cooker, a fixed-up Rolls Royce and several boxes of tinned mackerel. In the narrator’s eyes, Valentina is all surface, a collection of things – which means that we have no access to her point of view. She gets quite a rough deal, and maybe something of Lewycka’s purpose in Two Caravans is to atone for her portrayal of Valentina by allowing a cast of migrants free reign over the British Isles for 300 pages. Not only that: a democratic narrative gives each protagonist their say, even Dog. Lewycka’s novel is a jolly romp that echoes with guilt, but it would be too stern to accuse her of a lack of sympathy. As her epigraph, from the prologue to ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’, puts it: ‘Taketh not agrief of that I seye;/For myn entente is nat but for to pleye.’