December 11, 2009

TWO CARAVANS

by Monica Lewycka
309 pages. Fig Tree Press.

Review by Sharon Gunason Pottinger

Confessions of a Narrative Junkie: Review of Two Caravans

If I hadn’t arrived at my friend’s house an hour early and the only thing to read was Two Caravans, I probably would not have picked it up even though I enjoyed Monica Lewycka’s first book (A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian). I am a narrative junkie—once I start a story I have to see how it ends.

By the time my friend showed up and I set the book aside, I had read 20 pages and that was enough to make me wonder how the story would end. I was hooked. Now the fact that I looked for it in my local library rather than having Amazon zap it to me suggests I was equivocal about it from the get go. Even so, when I the librarian plopped it triumphantly down in front of me, I was happy to see it and read it that same day.

The dedication to Morecambe Bay cockle pickers and the excerpt from the Prologue to the Wife of Bath’s Tale (in older English) suggested it was going to be a more serious book, or at least touch lightly on serious subjects, which she did in Short History. Most of the seriousness in Two Caravans, however, gets lost in slapstick and the fact that the characters describing what they see are limited in the perspective they can offer. The wise fool character types represented in the na├»ve immigrants and, yes, a dog with more humanity than some of the humans, offer some very funny insights into the chaos that typify too much of contemporary life, but the characters who might provide fuller insights are left on the cutting room floor. That seems to me a great loss, and a disservice to Chaucer whose spirit she evoked.

I like to think I would have recognized the traveller’s tales genre without the excerpt, but it might have eluded me—I leave to your discretion to decide whether that is because it has been too long since I studied literature or Ms. Lewycka needed to signpost her design.

In addition to losing the older, wiser characters, which meant the end of the novel was more of a romance than true traveller’s tales, the bad guys were not well defined. The stage was set for seeing the good and bad characters alike as faced with impossible choices through brief back stories, at least for Vitaly. The young prostitute with dead eyes is a good foil for Irina. Arguably Vulk and Vitaly are the antithesis of Andriy. But we do not get a chance to see how fate shaped Vulk into the complete villain that he is and so we cannot understand the passion he has for Irina, which is a compelling force for much of the plot. What makes one person choose to be “a man” as Andriy decides and another to look at the world with dead eyes? This is an important question that even in a picaresque, light-hearted novel, needs a bit more answering. After all, the book is dedicated to the Morecambe cockle pickers—those poor souls who were left to drown in the incoming tide because their agents didn’t understand or know or care that they were drowning. Other than the dedication, the cockle pickers are mentioned only in passing and we are left to wonder as well about the Chinese girls whose lives have already been so desperately compromised.

When Ms. Lewycka chooses to research and to present a graphic scene of gross exploitation, she can do it ably. The description of the dehumanising events in the chicken factory are a testament to the fact that she can write powerfully within her chosen genre when she chooses to do so. Even more startling than the graphic story in the chicken factory is the stark description of the exploitation of trained medical people subjected to “retraining” at minimal wages, including much the same kinds of deductions as the agricultural workers. Exploitation by the mobilfonmen cuts across classes and continents.

One reviewer described Two Caravans as struggling with second book phenomenon, which, in this case, seems to be a struggle to repeat her initial success and bring out another book fast enough to capitalize on the success of the first one while trying to look serious. I like to think that if she had taken a bit more time and made it a bit more balanced, it would have been a much stronger story. Perhaps there is an editor or a sales and marketing department that leaned a bit too heavily on the author.

Although another reviewer commented that they liked seeing Mr. Mayevskyj, a central figure from her first novel, this cameo appearance seemed to me like a nod to Hollywood type name-dropping. It did not add to the narrative. Many men (and some women, I daresay) have a fondness for things mechanical. The gearbox might have belonged to any number of people, and the plot could have worked well without any more coincidences.

Most puzzling to me was Emmanuel. His story was perhaps one of the most interesting and it is given to us in small doses almost as a subplot, but one that does not quite come to a satisfactory end. Is Emmanuel’s strict faith and love of God the antidote for Britain’s overblown consumerism or is he just one lucky AIDS orphan whose life has come right? Although he has the last word in the novel, his story, sadly, seems to remain a sideshow to the romantic happy ending.

Perhaps I have been so critical of Two Caravans because I did read it—like eating a second piece of chocolate or getting caught with one’s hand in the cookie jar—yes, yes, I read it, but you see I can find all these flaws in it so I am morally and intellectually superior to a book others call a book with “a big heart”. Despite all its limitations, I read it and I enjoyed it. November is the season for Nouveau Beaujolais, wine that is pleasing to the palate but not well aged nor long lived on the shelf. Read Two Caravans quickly and do not expect it to linger on the bookshelf for a re-read and you can enjoy the occasional flashes of insight into a world most of us, thank God, will never experience directly.

Sharon Gunason Pottinger

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