On writing about Two Caravans I have an ambivalent feeling to put into proper words. Oh well, I will get by.
On the one hand, I really enjoyed the book as an entertaining and even enlightening reading, but on the other there are some things that bothered me. Overall, I have to say how the positive sides of the novel overcame the negative ones although in the very first pages it was the opposite.
Let's start with the pros.
This is a pretty unique novel written in a rather original style and puts the reader into a context that was uneasy to handle and deliver successfully for a writer.
Marina Lewycka tried to work on the world of the seasonal workers coming to the UK either for picking up fruit or working in farms/factories being often cheated, exploited, underpaid, bad accommodated. This was indeed a brilliant idea for a novel and Lewycka not only read a couple of books, but also spent some time on real strawberry fields in order to get some fresh information about that underworld.
Then comes the cast of characters who have to cope with the above mentioned hidden world and, together with this, the problem of giving a realistic and convincing voice to this bunch of people. And here's the first of the cons: some of the characters are not developed or even left behind by Lewycka.
No doubt she did it on purpose for focusing on a single and compelling story rather than following a disorganized constellation of events. But still, this process pissed me off as you can't introduce characters, talk with their own voice putting yourself in their shoes and then throwing these shoes in the laundry basket when they start to be stinky.
Talking about stinky feet, here we have a guy, the Polish Tomek, who looks at first like a selfish moron and then gradually becomes someone we learn to sympathize with. Yet, as soon as, we are wondering what the good Tomek is going to do next, his story is left behind. This may be not a big deal if Lewycka wouldn't use the same technique for saying farewell to mmmh...let me count them...at least five characters.
The greatest worth of this book is perhaps that one could hardly notice that these guys are suddenly missing because the main story is going on and is taking your breath away in an odd mixing of Tolstoj-shaped romanticism, road movies and Borat talking. I wonder if it was all that necessary letting people talk like they forgot a bag full of definite and indefinite articles in Ukraine and Poland (where they don't use them as far as I know), but well the English readers probably needed some exoticism and Lewycka knew how to get it.
After all, most of the Britons we meet through the book do not seem very familiar with the Oxford English Dictionary too.
This said, I also have to admit how for about 40 pages, the author draws a masterful picture of a terrifying poultry farm exaggerating some details, but shocking the reader in a way that reminded me quite a lot one of the chapters of What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe: same topic, same wish of considering vegetarianism as more than merely a topic of conversation for the astonished reader.
Giving voice to a dog is nothing new too as I can recall David Eggers doing pretty much the same in one of his early short stories. And yet Lewycka made it better, although this Dog speaks way too much!
Much more may be said about Two Caravans, but I don't want to spoil you over. I can very much understand why some reviewers couldn't stand this book being myself pretty pissed off by the way the novelist had overused stereotypes for characterizing her fellow Ukrainians, the Poles and the guy from Malawi. Still I can't deny how I found myself amused by this book and will probably study that certain History of Tractors in Ukrainian very soon.
Well, let's start with a couple of good things about Alan Bennett.
In an age where many celebrated writers lost (or never had) the gift of synthesis, Mr Bennett delivered to his readers a novel of 124 pages.
A tiny book that is perfect for filling a winter-coat pocket.
Besides, Mr Bennett wrote a novel that everybody could read.
Let's face it. "The Uncommon Reader" may please the elderly and the youngster, grandmas and grandsons. It is witty without being cerebral.
There is a vague fairytale flavour that I enjoyed.
It is something that reminded me "The BFG" by Roald Dahl.
Her Majesty the Queen, I suppose. And I was also thinking to another paper monarch, the less known "King Matt the First".
Plus, we have a David Sedaris-like character named Nelson that plays the book-elf for a while.
And yet now that I'm done with this novel, I have a bittersweet feeling for it.
While the first part of "The Uncommon Reader" is highly enjoyable and a little modern classic by itself, the second part doesn't have the same charm. I think it would have been important keeping the same quality in such a tiny novel.
Anyway, this book made my commuting mornings through Oxfordshire better.