Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Strawberry Fields, by Marina Lewycka.  Penguin Books (2008), 294 pages

I loved this book. But before I remark on anything else, I really need to share my thoughts on the stunningly dreadful and inappropriate U.S. cover. (The book was originally published in England with the title Two Caravans.) First of all, few men are likely to pick up this girly cover, with its silly flowered border and delicate little illustration of strawberries, complete with a little white flower curling up away from the stem. I have nothing against illustrations of strawberries in general (though this one reminds me of an advertisement in a chichi gardening catalog), but I’m sad on behalf of all the men whom I believe would really enjoy this book. Unless someone is nearby to convince him that the cover does not reflect the story in the slightest, what man will buy this? And he will be missing out on a boyish adventure story including meandering road trips punctuated with violence, a bizarre gangster, crude humor, and intelligent political satire.

Clearly, the publisher wanted this book, the author’s second, to exactly match the cover of her first book, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (also excellent). Same flowers lining the border, same line illustration of fruit (apples this time). But while the Tractors cover is not great, it at least makes some sense—the flowers speak to the showy, colorful, froufrou Ukrainian divorcee. But there was no good reason to carry the design over to Lewycka’s next book, which is radically different. Why does this penchant exist for making all of an author’s books match precisely, even when they have little in common?

Since the characters leave the strawberry field just a quarter of the way through the story, I’m not sure that Strawberry Fields was a good departure from the original title anyway, but since that’s what was chosen, I will say that the Canadian version of the cover (real strawberries in a plastic container) is excellent and matches the spirit of the story. Had I known about their cover I would definitely have purchased it instead; hopefully this review will steer potential Strawberry readers to the Canadian version and a more pleasurable reading experience.

Moving along to what the book is about…it’s essentially a comedic look at the lives of migrant workers in England. The workers are from everywhere: Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Poland, Malawi, and other troubled countries. They have come to England looking for a better life, but find nothing but trouble in every conceivable form. Their adventures become increasingly over the top, but that was sort of the point and I didn’t mind.

I found the most fascinating segment of the book to be the character Vitaly’s description of  Moldova’s 1992 war over language, when Transdniestria, a tiny region to the east, seceded from Moldova over the issue of whether the country’s language should be Cyrillic or Roman. “Two thousand lives lost, his oldest brother’s among them, hundreds of homes burned out, theirs among them, over how a language should be written.”

Throughout this book, the narrative point of view changes countless times, but the author is so skilled that the result is seamless—never confusing or annoying in the slightest. And she succeeds in being incredibly funny the entire time, regardless of who is speaking:

Yola Sitting on the step of the women’s trailer, painting her toenails fuchsia pink, petite, voluptuous Yola watches the Dumpling’s Land Rover pull in through the gate at the bottom of the field, and the new arrival clamber down out of the passenger seat. Really, she cannot for the life of her understand why they have sent this two-zloty pudding of a girl, when what is clearly needed is another man—preferably someone mature, but with his own hair and nice legs and a calm nature—who will not only pick faster, but will bring a pleasant sexual harmony to their small community, whereas anyone can see that this little miss is going to set the fox among the chickens, and that all the men will be vying for her favors and not paying attention to what they are really here for, namely, the picking of strawberries.

Emanuel Dear Sister, Thank you for the money you sent for with its help I have now journeyed from Zomba to Lilongwe and so on via Nairobi into England. Being needful of money I came into the way of strawberry picking and I am staying in a trailer with three mzungus in Kent. I am striving with all my might to improve my English but this English tongue is like a coilsome and slippery serpent and I am always trying to remember the lessons of Sister Benedicta and her harsh staff of chastisement.

Vitaly “Vitaly, tell Ciocia what it is you do.” “Recruitment consultant. Cutting edge dynamic employment solution consultant with advance flexible capacity for meets all your organizational staffing need…. You only have to learn some words in English. And of course contacts. The main thing is to have contacts…. You will be contributing to the dynamic resurgence of the poultry industry in the British Isles.”

Dog I am dog I am happy dog I run I piss I sniff I have my men they go to piss in the wood man piss has good smell this man’s piss smells of moss and meat and herbs this is good I sniff this man’s piss smells of garlic and love hormones this is also good but love hormones are too strong I sniff this man’s piss smells too sour but his feet smell good I sniff in this wood are other man smells vomit man-smoke wheelie oil I sniff no dog smells I will make my dog smell here I run I piss I am happy dog I am dog.