Review: Two Caravans

I’ve kind of shied away from book reviews on the grounds that I purchased a domain a while back with the idea of keeping the book reviews all in one place. Alas the reality is that between my job, writing and having a life I’m never going to have time to manage the technical aspects of such a project.

Maybe one day?

Maybe, but I already have one blog. It’s doing OK but it is meant to be about stuff I do and, by not talking about what I’m reading, and at the risk of getting a bit Oprah, I’m cutting out a huge chunk. Ergo books are back in. I thought we’d kick it off with a novel that I read this week whilst meandering to and from work:

Two Caravans

Two Caravans, by Marina Lewycka, is Lewycka’s second novel and begins with the dedication:

“To the Morecambe Bay cockle-pickers”

And the story itself is about migrant workers, illegal and legal, existing on the fringes of UK society one summer. Following them as they come together in the two caravans of the title to pick strawberries for a Kentish farmer.

I settled down to what I expected would be a downbeat tale and a pretty big departure from Lewycka’s charmingly funny first novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.

I was wrong. Yes: it’s a very different story to A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, yes: the laughs are fewer but: the story is entertaining, uplifting even. And technically a more polished piece of work than her first book. Very much a character piece, the author treats each of her protaganists with respect – even the ones who are nearly to odious to bear.

As previously mentioned Lewycka is tackling some pretty dark areas of modern life. Illegal workers do not live happy, adventurous lives and there are rarely happy endings. However, the book’s real triumph is not the way this theme runs through the book like a seam of coal but in Lewycka’s ability to show us our own country through the eyes of strangers. Both the light and the dark through people not born here, nor raised in comparable comfort, and to whom the everyday that we find mundane is strange.

Hard to pull off successfully and a rare gift.

If the novel has a failing it is that it is too nice. The dark underbelly at the core of the characters situation is a constant throughout the book, hanging opressively over them like a gathering storm that never quite breaks. In the real world horrible ends await many of these immigrants yet our protaganists come through relatively unscathed. It is the minor characters, the bit parts and cameos who suffer the true nasties.

Indeed, although I really enjoyed the book, I kept thinking if ever a book cried out for an Atonement style ending it was this one. On reflection I think this says more about the reviewer than the writer and may speak volumes as to why Lewycka is a best selling writer whilst I am not.

Should you prefer to gloss over where your food comes or who’s cleaning your office or what the person bringing you your coffee used to do to earn a crust…well you might want to leave this one on the shelf. However, if you like well crafted, moving fiction based on solid characters and sprinkled with humour then you’ll really enjoy Two Caravans.

And the dog is the real hero. And there’s a lesson in that.

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