For some time now, I have scribbled short notes on books I have read. Initially, I guess, it was as a result of my university days. It seemed a waste not to put all the knowledge gained to some positive use. It also proved a practical aide-mémoire, my memory needing all the practical aide-mémoires it can get these days. But increasingly it serves another purpose. Now that I am trying to write myself, I find myself searching under the bonnet of the work trying to figure out how it has been assembled, to discover what makes it tick.
Setting down my thoughts helps me distil the significant elements of the book. Sometimes, this proves enlightening, at others disheartening. The latter because most plots, when refined, are remarkably simple, which leaves me feeling sort of cheated. There must be more to it than that, I think. And, of course, there is. If nothing else, it emphasises the need for quality in the writing and characterisation. Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea is the best example that immediately springs to mind.
Can you imagine touting that plot to a publisher?
"Got a surefire winner here, Sam. Man goes fishing, catches fish."
Anyway, in between reading Proust's In Remembrance of Things er... what was it again, I have been reading A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka.Though not finished, here are my thoughts so far.
The book has a small but well defined cast of characters. They consist of a family of father, mother (deceased) and two sisters and an intruder, namely Koyla, Ludmilla, Nadezha, Vera, and Valentina.
The narrator, Nadezha, is a left wing lecturer, her sister a committed materialist, the father an engineer with somewhat confused humanitarian principles, the absent mother a romanticist (am not totally certain of this description), and the outsider a greedy, grasping, totally unprincipled woman bedazzled by the glitter of capitalism.
The plot is uncomplicated. The mother has died two years earlier and the remainder of the family, originally from the Ukraine, have all now grown apart when, to the consternation of the sisters, the father announces his intention to marry Valentina, a blowsy Ukranian well under half his age but with the undoubted bonus of a pair of Botticellian breasts.
The story revolves around the efforts of the sisters to patch up their political differences sufficiently so as to oust the cuckoo from their familial nest.
It is a topical, dealing, as it does, with issues of immigration, though unremarkable plot. Three things, however, lift it from the ordinary; the characterisation of the protagonists; the wit of the writing; and the insertion, periodically, of texts from the short history of tractors, written by Pappa and translated with the help of Nadezha.
With this clever device, Lewycka, gives her characters an historical setting, adding a context to their petty actions without ever attempting to rationalise or analyse them. It adds depth, interest and weight to what otherwise would have been an amusing but light tale.