Saturday, 10 March 2007

Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka

Two Caravans
Marina Lewycka
(Penguin Fig Tree €??)

A SHORT History of Tractors in Ukrainian was last year's surprise bestseller - still ranking at 111 on as I write.

It was a fairly astonishing hit, since it concerned two grousy middle-aged sisters trying to detach their aged father from his new wife, an ambitious suicide blonde New European.

But it had the one guarantee of bestsellerdom: a great story that would make you laugh till you bust your gussets.

Two Caravans is darker - five of its major characters end up murdered - but if I was a stock-buying type I'd be running out to invest in its chances.

Lewycka is writing about the invisible world that everyone sees and no one knows: the secret life of illegal immigrants.

The 'two caravans' of the title are the men's and women's caravans in a Kentish farmer's field, where the strawberry-pickers live.

Our characters are all darlings, even, in the end, the murderers and the criminals. And especially the dog called Dog, whom we first meet as he escapes illegal dog-fighters' cages, barking "I AM DOG".

Two brilliant Chinese girls giggle together as they work to earn the money for their third-level study, until they're offered a lovely job minding an ambassador's children, and disappear into the brothels of Amsterdam.

A sweet Malawian Aids orphan is minded tenderly by the others, and saved by his own incredible luck. A much-married woman seeks a father for her Down's Syndrome child.

The criminals do their deals, talking forever on 'mobilfon' to shift people around from the fruit fields to the brothels and the horrifying chicken factory farms where the workers play soccer with the dying hens.

And you can trust Lewycka's gentle writerly heart - there's a happy ending for the good, or at least for those that survive.


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