by Marina Lewyca
Fig Tree, HK$132
Marina Lewyca's debut, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, is one of the most charming, funny and successful novels of recent times. The problem with such debuts is that they must be followed up. That Two Caravans avoids the pitfalls of DSNS (difficult second novel syndrome) says much about Lewyca's talent as a gifted humorist and storyteller. We begin with Irina, who travels to England from Kiev the hard way - 42 hours by coach and boat. Arriving in Dover, she meets Vulk, a 'gangster-type' possessed of a 'chip-fat smile' who confiscates her passport and puts her to work fruit-picking in Kent. In the two caravans that pass for accommodation, Irina meets a motley crew of migrant workers from China, Malawi and Poland. Lewyca is at her best when popping Irina's romanticised images of life, love and the English. She is especially good when contorting language to comic effect, 'canal knowledge' being my favourite malapropism. The passages narrated by the workers' tearaway dog are also wonderful. The story's genial surface is rippled by darker undercurrents: prostitution, human trafficking and economic exploitation. If Lewyca's black comedy doesn't always quite come off, her ambition bodes well for that slightly less tricky third novel.