A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - Marina Lewycka
The title sold this to me - the sheer cheekiness of writing a popular novel with words like "tractors" and "Ukrainian" in the title deserves to be rewarded. However, when it turned up I was quite disturbed to see a glowing recommendation on the front from the Daily Mail... and who else liked it? The Telegraph... the Times... the Spectator... oh dear...
A few pages in, it became clear why they liked it so much - the bad guy is an Illegal Immigrant, and the story is about the struggle by two estranged sisters to get her sent back home again. The result of this was an uncomfortable mixture of guilt and dread on my part while reading it - should I really be enjoying this? Will it turn out to be a load of right-wing propaganda? Should I even be reading it at all?
As it turns out, the book was really rather good, and in the end did not appear to have a particular political axe to grind - the heart of the story was in the characters, not the plot. The sisters are from a Ukrainian family that emigrated to England shortly after the second world war; the recent death of their mother resulted in the family falling apart, and this is where the real story lies - we delve into the family's horrific wartime past and their struggles to survive in post-war Europe, as the sisters try to reconcile their differences in the face of a common enemy.
The book stops short of being too censorious; it also stops short of heartwarming cheesiness. Overall, it strikes a good balance between the two, in the same way that the humourous tone balances out the bleak past. Appropriately, too - no place for melodrama in a book about tractors.