Following the success of
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian,
Lewycka returns with a tragic-comic triumph of
cultural confusion which delves into the darkest
reaches of economic migration and Western
capitalism, encompassing the brutality of
factory-farming; the immigrant hostels that are
effective slums; the exploitation of illegal, and
even legal, workers, and the endless deductions
taken from their paltry paychecks for accommodation,
food, transport and 'training', that leaves them
with virtually nothing in their pockets; and then
there is the ultimately more sinister side of human
trafficking, which is not a major theme but raises
its ugly head from time to time (for more about
modern day slavery, see BookBrowse's review of
Half way through Strawberry Fields (published in the UK as Two Caravans) idealistic, freedom-loving Tomasz, a Polish migrant worker in England, looks around the small stinking room he shares with 5 strangers and wonders to himself whether he is freer in the West today than he was in Poland in the years of communism. In fact, is he really any freer than the factory-farmed chickens that it is his job to catch four at a time and stuff into small cages so that they can be packed into little plastic trays for 2-for-1 specials in the supermarket (a daily horror that has already become routine to him)? "Tormentor and tormented, they are all just damned creatures in hell."
Strawberry Fields is full of people such as Tomasz; migrant-workers from various parts of the former Eastern Europe, and even further afield, from Africa and Asia, who are drawn to seek work overseas because of desperate conditions at home, only to encounter more desperate conditions in the land of opportunity.
The story opens in the strawberry fields of Kent in the south of England, where Farmer Leaping runs a profitable little business on the backs of a small group of migrant workers, from Ukraine, Poland, Africa, China and Malaysia, who pick his strawberries. On his way to the fields on payday, Leaping proudly runs through the calculations: Pickers are paid 30p a kilo before deductions and each kilo sells for £2; a good worker picks 80 kilos (176 lbs) of strawberries a day, six days a week over a twelve-week season. That's £144 a week (~$290); but "the beauty of it is that half of what you fork out in wages you can claw back in living expenses" - each worker pays £50 per week rental for their trailer bunk and £49 per week for food (white bread supplemented by jam at breakfast, cheese slices at lunch, and sausage for supper; and as many strawberries as they can eat).
Farmer Leaping's views of his migrant workers, who are all one and the same to him (except for Yola, with whom he has a "special relationship") are contrasted with first and third person accounts from the strawberry-pickers themselves. Lewycka skips the narrative between characters rapidly and skillfully, giving everyone their moment in the spotlight, some more than others; even a stray dog who attaches himself to the group gets a say in punctuation-free capitals that initially irritate but grow on the reader as the book progresses.
The common link between the characters is that they came to England with idealistic expectations but their backgrounds and education widely differ - nowhere more so than between the two Ukrainians who emerge as central to the story, and represent the two halves of one country - Andrivy from the depressed mining town of Donbas, and 19-year-old "high-spec" Irina, daughter of a Ukrainian professor who arrives in England expecting to meet "all the cultured, brave, warm-hearted people that [she'd] read about in Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens". She has been warned by her mother to avoid "persons of minimum culture" but has barely walked on English soil when she falls into the grasp of odious Vulk, a "mobilfon" thug with a fake leather jacket that "creaked as he walked", who confiscates her passport because "is many bed people in England. Can stealing from you."
The reader might think life is tough in Farmer Leaping's strawberry fields, but it is nothing compared to what is to come for the group when they leave the relatively green and pleasant lands of Kent and embark on a journey that will take them to places darker and more satanic than they could have imagined. Strawberry Fields is an impossible book to sum up - Lewycka plays with language and the miscommunication between cultures as she bounces her characters from slapstick to sitcom. They encounter gangsters and guns, strawberries and more strawberries, factory-farms and fishermen, eco-warriors living in trees and social activists, and even, briefly, Mr Mayevskyj (from A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian), along they way they are cheated and defeated; but those who emerge at the end do so a little wiser; as does the reader.
Immigrant Workers in Britain
In defense of Britain, it should be noted that not every immigrant in the UK experiences conditions as described in Strawberry Fields. Like many other Western European countries, especially those who are members of the European Union (EU), Britain has been overwhelmed by immigrants in recent years, particularly since 2004 when ten additional countries joined the EU, giving citizens of these countries the right to work anywhere within the EU (see sidebar). Many recent immigrants are getting on very well, both as migrant workers doing an honest days work for pay well in excess of what they could earn at home; and also on a permanent basis - building successful lives in Britain through a wide variety of jobs, with the safety net of the British social security system to support them (which is second only to a few other countries in Northern Europe). Others are earning a highly government subsidized university education in the UK. However, there are many others, some legal workers like Tomasz, and an unknown number of others who work illegally, who are not so lucky.
This review was originally published in October 2007, and has been updated for the April 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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