“You she-cat-dog-vixen-flesh-eating witch”
Nadezhka discovers that her 84-year-old father, recently bereaved, has become enamoured of a younger local Ukrainian woman and decided to marry her to save her from deportation. Nadezhka and her sister Vera attempt to set their father right, and when they are unable to do so, must watch the ensuing domestic mismatch. They rail against their stepmother with ever more inventive plots.
For a book that has won comedy prizes (Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize), this was bleakly un-humorous. I suspect that the comedy award was given on the strength of farcical descriptions – the image of Valentina tottering around the garden in her plastic high heels and heaving her enormous bosom about is quite funny, but the human tragedy of Nikolai’s situation, bereaved of a valued if not beloved wife, overwhelms the comedy.
The story of how the family came to England is actually a beautiful one and I wish it had been the centre piece of a very different novel. Similarly, the sisters’ petty heirloom battles and the attempts of the youngest generation to piece it together made for some interesting family drama.
Character development is cast aside in the pursuit of laughter – both sisters come across as embittered middle-aged women, Nikolai as a doddering old fool, a eminent (post-eminent?) engineer with incongruous fluctuations in his ability to make reasonable decisions, and Valentina as a witch with unclear motives. Perhaps my understanding of the Ukrainian emigrant psyche is insufficient to impose a pattern on Valentina’s behaviour – to me it appears cruel, haphazard and simply bizarre.
However, it can only be a condemnation of the relentless black comedy that I was willing the old man to die rather than endure any further nonsense from his daughters and partner.
Reviews by other bloggers: Jane of Reading, Writing, Working, Playing
This was one of two personal copies I had. I think I bought them both in Notting Hill.
Publisher: Penguin, paperback, 336 pages.
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