Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Berry Nice Book!

"Two Caravans" by Marina Lewycka


Marina Lewycka's second novel Two Caravans is a classic romantic comedy: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. In this instance, there's a slight nod to a twist on "Pride & Prejudice" with Andrei from a rural, lower-class family and Elena from the urban middle-class. That these characters are all migrant workers (one from Africa, two from China and the rest from non-EU Eastern Europe, with our heroes coming from the Ukraine), who have come to England to pick strawberries, is Lewycka's own distinctive spin.

With this slightly unique set up, and having experienced Lewycka's first smash-hit novel with great satisfaction, I was hopeful that this novel would be equally as enjoyable, despite it's less than rave reviews. With that in mind, I do have to say I wasn't terribly disappointed, but I cannot say that the critics of this book were far off the mark. "Two Caravans", therefore, is basically what one often observes with an author's second outing, especially after their debut novel is such a hit. That is, it isn't quite up to snuff. That said there isn't all that much that is terribly wrong with this book, either.

The biggest problem with this book was that Lewycka resorted to a famous literary blunder under the guise of "aren't I clever and creative." I'm talking about writing a realistic story which includes using a first-person point of view from either an animal or inanimate object. In this case, we get "dog" (and yes, I mean an animal) voicing its observations and feelings - carefully set apart by paragraphs of all caps, printed in comic sans font. It isn't her fault, really. Greater and/or more famous writers than Marina have fallen into this pitfall - not the least of which was Joanne Harris. While this is fine if you're writing "Watership Down" or "I, Robot", there really is no place for something like this in a book of this genre. Yes, there are stories that mix reality with certain magical qualities, but this isn't one of them. The problem is you can't actually ignore all the dog's thoughts, since much of it gives us important insights into the story. Still, I think this information could have been imparted in a less foolish way.

This was probably more difficult to overcome considering the book's composition with a jumble of first-person narratives - mostly from our main characters as well as a couple others, and of course, "dog". Had Lewycka used third person, this could easily have been avoided. But apparently, Marina likes to get into the heads of her characters - probably because she's first and foremost a sociologist by profession. I think this point-of-view is overrated and frankly, overused. That doesn't mean that she fails in making us empathetic to her characters, because this is where she shines. Moreover, we aren't confused as to who is speaking since she makes sure that each speaker has a distinctive voice by changing the style, or writing aspects (for instance, different spellings) of the narrative. This makes for a read that intrigues us but isn't overly heavy, even when our heroes are facing danger.

She also pulls us into the story and these people's lives by making us feel we can really care about what happens to them. That is essential for any novel and this book succeeds very nicely indeed. Here she investigates the various types of dreams these people have for themselves - both financially and emotionally, and how they go about chasing them, even when obstacles are placed in their paths. Throughout the story, we feel how these people change and adapt to their circumstances, as well as how they learn about themselves and the people they've been thrown together with. What's more, even the protagonists are well rounded, as are the more minor characters here. While we may have our doubts regarding what is rational and what is not about their tales and goals, we easily recognize the human conditions presented.

While the characters are both interesting and varied, the situations she puts them in, are most believable and freshly idiosyncratic. This sets up the comic aspects of this story, which are funny, but not hilarious. It occurred to me that as a sociologist (or while she was a social worker) she probably worked with just such real people during her career. By this, she is "writing what she knows," and that makes this feel personal. From there Lewycka knows how to manipulate her characters through the plot twists to keep us turning pages until the very end, which is also in her favor.

As a whole, there is much to like in this book, but it falls slightly short of her debut novel. Even so we can enjoy and believe in the characters on the whole (aside from that dog), the settings are interesting and not overly described, and the situations are generally unfamiliar to us, making us curious to see what happens. Yet, while it is still a fun and easy read, it doesn't really have any huge impact on us. There are no deep insights into human nature, nothing that strikes us as amazing prose and nothing that will have us laughing aloud. And while saying that "Two Caravans" is just an amusing novel isn't an insult, it also isn't very high praise either. So after much debate, while I'll still recommend this book, I can't give it more than three stars out of five.

(This is a revised version of the review that originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)

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