After a disastrous strawberry-picking season, Eastern European migrant workers take a road trip across “this other Eden…this earth, this realm, this England” in search of meaning, stability and perhaps even love.
The disaster of the strawberry season is amorous rather than agricultural, for Wendy Leaping has discovered that her husband, the owner of the strawberry fields, is having a torrid relationship with Yola, the tough crew boss. When the cops are called after Wendy runs over her husband in a bright red sports car, the workers scatter. Several take off in the trailer that had provided their accommodation during picking season. In their search for more work they encounter corrupt individuals—English, Polish and Ukrainian—who want to exploit their vulnerable status as “guest workers.” Handsome Andriy has become enamored of but separated from Irina, so he goes on a quest to find her. Along the way, his companion Tomasz finds work in a chicken factory (the ironically named “Buttercup Meadow Farmfresh Poultry”), and the novel makes a brief digression into naturalism as Lewycka (A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, 2005) does for chickens in England what Upton Sinclair did for cattle in Chicago. The narrative is polyvocal and includes points-of-view that shift fluidly from Irina to Emanuel (a Malawian worker who sends letters home to his sister) to the dog that tags along with the travelers (these sections all begin “I AM DOG”) to an engaged and sympathetic third-person voice that identifies closely with Andriy. Some of the comic energy of the novel emerges from the difficulties characters encounter with the language barrier. Irina, for example, tries to figure out “what on earth…was a Moldavian toy boy?” Andriy is driven not just by his desire to recover Irina but also by his own idealized vision of Sheffield (“a place of palaces and bougainvillea”).
Strawberry-sweet, but not too syrupy.