“Two Caravans” by Marina Lewycka, and, “The Road Home” by Rose Tremain

Quite by accident, I found myself reading these two books back to back, without knowing much about what either was about. In fact, they are both novels with the same theme, the experiences of the Eastern European migrants coming to the UK for work.

Two Caravans follows a group of strawberry pickers in Kent, made up of men and woman from Poland, Ukraine, China and Malawi. The arrival of a new picker, a young Ukrainian girl, Irina, unsettles some members of the group and supervisor Yola, seeks to put things back on an even keel. However, the Russian “gangster”, Vulk, who has brought Irina to the UK has other plans for the girl, throwing the group into disarray, and a road trip ensues showing us the hazards and struggles facing immigrants trying to find work in modern Britain.

The Road Home on the other hand, is the tale of Lev, an Eastern European (we are not told exactly which EU country he comes from) unemployed sawmill worker, who having lost his wife and his job, is travelling to the UK for work so that he can send money home to his mother who looks after his five year old daughter. The story starts with the fifty hour coach trip that will bring him to London, where he makes the acquaintance of Lydia, a teacher of English, also hoping to start a new life as a translator. After parting at the coach station, the book follows Lev as he struggles to find his footing in the city, and we learn the story of his family and outrageous friend, Rudi, through flashback, dreams and phone conversations with Rudi. The book follows Lev’s successes and failures in Britain and how the experiences help him work through his grief to understand what direction he should take his life in.

I really enjoyed Marina Lewycka’s first novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, and it led me to read her next bookTwo Caravans. Marina was a lecturer in Media Studies, and I felt her first book was very filmic in style, and you could almost imagine each scene being written as a script for a drama, but it still had humour and a good story which flowed well through the book. Two Caravans is quite different in style, with short sections of narrative interspersed with internal dialogue from each of the characters forming long chapters, which left me feeling slight disorientated at times, particularly at the beginning of the book, but this echoes what the characters are going through at that point of the story. It does, however, become slightly less confusing towards the end, when we concentrate on just two or three characters at a time. Having said that, it still feels like a very visual novel, as if the author is writing a movie and not a novel.

I did feel that while the Eastern European characters were handled well, but I felt the Chinese girls and the Malawian, Emmanuel, were pretty much overlooked, and were just a way to add a bit of variety of immigrants into the book, without really understanding them as people.

While most of the reviews (and there are a lot of them quoted on the paperback version of the book I have) on the front, back and inside covers say there is tradegy, disturbing elements and that it’s even horrifying at times, they all comment on the comedy (“Hilarious” – Guardian) of the novel – I didn’t find it funny at all, it was in parts sad and disturbing and although I could see the humour that the author was trying to put into the story, it just left me feeling deflated and sad at the situations these people found themselves in.

By comparison The Road Home with a more traditional literary style of story telling, was more sombre in tone but allowed a completely different relationship with the protagonist, and was utterly compelling. In dealing with one principal character, it allowed the reader to view the entire experience of an immigrant to the UK, and understand their reasons for deciding to try and find work abroad. We see the difficulties in language, the differences in society and the desperation of the struggle of being completely isolated in an alien environment. The book is not an easy read at times, and I suspect there may be others who would criticise it for ending in a slightly contrived way, but overall, I felt it was a truthful and an uplifting story, and would recommend it to others to read.