In Two Caravans (sometimes sold under the title Strawberry Fields) Marina Lewycka has written a wonderful, funny, and thought provoking novel. Her first book was A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.
Two Caravans examines the life of immigrant workers to the UK who are recruited to work legally and illegally picking fruit and vegetables each summer. It follows Irina, a politically western leaning Ukrainian from Kiev who has come for an adventure, and Andriy, from the industrial and mining east of Ukraine which politically looks to Russia. Irina joins a team of strawberry pickers from Poland, Ukraine, Malawi, China, and Malaysia, working on a farm in Kent. They live in two caravans by the side of the field, their food is basic, and their pay is virtually nothing. But what are they to do?
However, things start to go wrong. Irina is not very good at picking strawberries. And Vulk, the burly ‘recruitment officer’ thinks he will get better money for her by putting her to work on the streets at night. Irina runs away. Together, the rest of them hitch up one of the caravans to the farmer’s Land Rover and escape to find Irina. Some get new work in slaughter houses for chickens. This section is described so vividly that it really makes you want to eat organic. Their work takes them from restaurants in London, care homes near Peterborough, to Sheffield – the city that Andriy has been dreaming of since childhood. All the time on the run from Vulk. And there is a surprising hero.
At the heart of the story is a story of love and protection – how a western leaning city girl can fall for an eastern leaning pro-Russian former miner. Their love deals with things that are far more important than politics, loyalty, friendship and protection. These things are also portrayed as more important than trying to climb up the prosperity ladder whilst leaving their morals behind, as some characters do. Lewycka writes about some quite horrific things – how prostitution can be seen as a step to the better life, the constant fear of escape from that life, the poor conditions for immigrant workers, and the conditions in the chicken-houses for workers and chickens! But all along she makes the narrative bounce along with lightness and humour.
Well worth reading.