This is Marina Lewycka’s Two Caravans. The two Poles Tomasz and Yola, the two Ukrainians Andriy and Irina, the two Chinese girls, and Emmanuel from Malawi, they all have come to the UK for different reasons, yet having one thing in common – looking for something. Whether it is money to start a new life, an old friend, love, companionship, or adventure, they are restless to explore whatever the new land has to offer to them.
At the beginning they all work and live in two caravans in a strawberry picking land in Kent. However, the working conditions are far from desirable for immigrant workers. They are exploited and robbed by the farmers, being paid the lowest wages. When Irina is kidnapped by the Russian mafia gangster Vulk, who is looking to make her his lover and then a prostitute, the brave company goes on a journey to set her free. Throughout they meet shady people, luring them into taking insecure jobs. The two Chinese girls are even sold as prostitutes. UK at that time is not a nice place for the immigrants. Full of wanna-be gangsters with mobilfon (that is how they are satirically called in the novel), expensive clothes, and shady sun-glasses, it is a place where these people are exposed to danger and deceit daily. As an immigrant herself, Lewycka quite profoundly describes the difficulties of adapting to a different culture.
At a first glance the novel is supposed to be funny. At a first glance it is actually quite similar to Laurie Graham’s Life according to Lubka, where several Bulgarian singers go through ridiculously funny experiences in their clash with the English civilization. On a closer look, though Two Caravans is tremendously powerful and sadly realistic. Taking Yola, for example. The 40 something years old woman has come to the UK to save enough money to buy a house back home and to find a man, who is not repelled by her son with the Dawn syndrome. Andriy and Irina, both young and innocent, have read and dreamt about meeting English lady/gentleman and spending their life drinking tea and being admired. Tomasz is a lonely 45 years old man, who loves playing his guitar and is desperately in love with Yola. All of them came to the UK in the hopes of escaping the poverty in their home countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet, what they find is more sorrow, more problems, and more struggle.
At the end, though, Two Caravans is somewhat optimistic. One way or another, all of the characters (whom every reader gets to love throughout the novel) find some king of settlement. In a good way, this encounter with one another has helped them realize the false appeal of the so-called English dream.
Witty, perceptive, filled with black humour, and highly satirical, this is Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka. The Ukrainian immigrant creates a plausible picture of the obstacles in front of these workers, presenting the reality of the UK labour, exploiting the weak and nurturing the gangsters and the mafia. One of the most enjoyable and distinctive features in the novel is the presence of the dog, called, of course Dog. Somewhere in the middle of the journey, this loyal friend joins the strange company and the author shares the animal’s thoughts and experiences in a unique way.
Lewycka is an Ukrainian immigrant, living and teaching in Sheffield. Two Caravans is her second novel, after A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian and it is brilliant. Quite worth reading.