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We Are All Made of Glue by Marina Lewycka is an intriguing novel.  The story is narrated by Georgie Sinclair, a mother of two, whose marriage to Rip is on the rocks.  Into her new-found separation comes the elderly Mrs Naomi Shapiro, who lives in Canaan House in abject squalor with seven cats and fights over the red-sticker specials with other pensioners at the local grocery store.  When she has a fall and laid-up in hospital, Georgie is called as her next of kin and very soon our narrator, an aspiring chic-lit author, is drawn into the feline world of this old woman and her strange life.  No sooner has the old woman been placed into hospital has a pair of untrustworthy real estate agents conspired with social services personnel to try to oust Mrs Shapiro from her home and make a huge profit on the deal in the process as it is ripe for  redevelopment.  Standing in their way is Georgie, who faces trouble of sorts at home with her teenage son Ben who is developing into a rabid Christian fundamentalist and is spouted wild, internet-sourced theories of coming Armageddon.  She feels an unavoidable connection to the old woman, and her nosy interest in her past is where the fun begins.

This is the initial set-up for the story and like Lewycka’s wonderfully funny (and Booker long-listed) debut, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (see my review), there is a collection of laughs here too in her typically black and slapstick forms.  However, for me this early part of the novel didn’t quite reach the heights of her first.  I suspect part of the reason is Georgie’s chic-lit ambitions – we get some very funny drafts of her story entitled The Splattered Heart, but some of the narrative ‘voice’ of the real story comes in the form of this ultra-commercial, chic-lit voice too and made me feel a little queasy.  For example: Georgie begins an affair with one of the unscrupulous agents’ more honest business partners, Mr Diabello, whom she describes thus:

His smile made rugged creases in his craggily handsome cheeks.  The cleft in his square, manly chin dimpled seductively.  His dark and smouldering eyes seemed to gaze right into my soul – or perhaps right into my underwear.

And so on.  Maybe this is so over the top that it is meant to be read as a satire on the drivel that Georgie is trying to pen, but it made me cringe rather than laugh.

Where the story excels is when Georgie delves into the history of Mrs Shapiro, for it soon becomes clear that not is all it seems with the old lady.  Into the mix is thrown a Palestinian handyman, Mr Ali.  He has two teenage Arabic relations who Georgie allows to take up residence in the house with the goal of repairing it after Mrs Shapiro has another fall and is placed into an old persons’ home against her will by the evil social worker, Mrs Goodney.  When Mr Ali recognises a photo of a place in Israel on the wall, we have the beginnings of a great story, for both he and Mrs Shapiro have a past from either side of the Jewish-Palestinian divide.  In beginning to tell Georgie of his story, Mr Ali says, “Of course, everybody knows about the sufferings of the Jews. … Only suffering of Palestinian people nobody knows.”  If this is not enough, we then have an Israeli man, Chaim Shapiro, arrive claiming ownership of the house.  What is his relationship to Mrs Shapiro?  Does he have a rightful claim to the house?  Do any of them?

In the meantime, it is agreed that Chaim and Mrs Shapiro will share the house with the two Arabic youths, despite the mistrust between them, as Georgie noses further and further into the histories of all these characters and the intersections of their histories and peoples.

But can they live together?  Thinking of the articles on adhesives she edits to earn an income, Georgie concludes (p359), “If you could just get the human bonding right, maybe the other details – laws boundaries, constitution – would fall into place.  It was just a case of finding the right adhesive for the adherends.  Mercy.  Forgiveness.  If only it came in tubes.”  To some this will read as a trite over-simplification but Lewycka has dared to dream and find some common-ground where there seems none.  Others may dislike it, but I salute it.  There is a better, more focussed adhesives metaphor shortly thereafter, when we have Georgie’s musings on adhesive ploymerisation (p381):

[It] depends on sharing.  An atom which is short of an electron looks out for another atom that’s got the right sort of electron …  then the atom grabs the electron it needs.  But no theft or nastiness is involved.  The two atoms end up sharing the electron, and that’s what holds all the atoms together in one beautiful long endlessly repeating dance – the beauty of glue!”

The notion of peace is further reinforced when juxtaposed with Georgie’s own family when Ben suffers a seizure and is hospitalised.  We find him surrounded by his sister Stella, Rip and Georgie.  Stella takes her parents to task for their childish fighting, telling her mother, “Doesn’t matter who started it.  We’re fed up of it.”

There are still laughs to be had, including the hilarious end to Canaan House after a BBQ celebrating the DIY-ers’ completion of the ‘penthouse suite’.  But we fortunately have a far more solid and meaningful foundation for them than the initial set-up of the novel hinted at.  The story is perhaps a little overly indulgent in some of the back-stories – some of Georgie’s interaction with her parents might be superfluous for instance.  But most of the seemingly loose ends are tied nicely together by the end.  So it is an odd fish this book.  There is, I imagine, something in it for everyone, which is both a weakness and strength.  It is thoroughly enjoyable and readable, very ‘light’ in terms of literary pretence, perhaps one that women might get more out of in terms of some of the humour.  But I can’t help thinking it could have been even better had the focus been just a little sharper.

We Are All Made of Glue by Marina Lewycka

Penguin

ISBN: 9780141030999

418 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, (aka: Personal Library).

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I’ve been on a tear recently when it comes to knocking off my 1001 Must Read Books TBRs, with four in a row now, and six from thirteen read this year all up.  The highly entertaining A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka is a surprising addition to this list.  Engaging and often hilarious it was short-listed for the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction and long-listed for the Man Booker in the same year, it did win the 2005 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing at the Hay Literary Festival, the 2005/6 Waverton Good Read Award, and the 2005 Saga Award for Wit.

The story explodes to life with the following opening:

Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcée.  He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six.  She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.

We are thus immediately introduced to the main protagonists – Nadezhda, our witty narrator, whose father Nikolai announces that he his to marry a 36-year-old Ukrainian woman, Valentina.  He urges her not to tell her sister, Vera, with whom Nadezhda has a strained relationship.  Their mother died two years prior, but the dust is still settling between the sisters who argue over money and the legacy of their mother’s story.  We very quickly become aware of the dynamics in the family unit, a unit about to grow larger with the arrival of Valentina.  It is thus not just the family ‘ghosts’ who get a kick up the backside, but those still trying to find their way in the world.

Nadezhda narrates us through the history of the family including their self-sufficient mother Ludmilla – a product of the poverty, hunger and depravation of her country as it struggled under the iron-grip of Stalin – who brings with her the habits of her Ukrainian homeland to England – her vegetable and fruit garden positively brims with produce and provides a stark backdrop to the avarice of Valentina whose only ability in the kitchen is her boil in the bag and microwave dinners.  Nikolai’s early recollections of his homeland – its blue sky over the golden fields, reflected in the nation’s flag of blue over yellow – are juxtaposed with the modern realities of Soviet-style concrete tower blocks, an environment o that still reeks of poverty and from which springs Valentina who divorces her able professor husband in order to emigrate to the UK with her supposedly musically-gifted son Stanislav.  It all provides for rampant mirth and madness as Valentina begins to suck poor old Nikolai, a pensioner, dry.  He begins to borrow money of his children to pay for Valentina’s excesses, even so far as contemplating sub-dividing his land – selling off the back-garden, selling off the garden that Ludmilla had cultivated for so many long years of marriage.  Valentina begins to get violent too, berated Nikolai for being ‘mean’ with his money, pushing him and flicking him with the end of a wet towel.  It all proves too much for the children to bear, and they begin to rebuild their relationship in the face of a common enemy.  There are constant moments of humour, from Nadezhda’s description of her first meeting with Valentina and the incredible tension of their shared dinner-table to the inevitable and spiteful family interactions.

Nikolai tries to come to terms with the mistake he has made, but only acknowledges it when it seems all is lost.  In the meantime, he has begun penning his Opus Magnus – a short history of tractors, written in Ukrainian.  The history of the tractor is set against Nadezhda’s increasing interest in the history of her family and the plight of Ukrainians in WWII.  There are secret pockets of her family’s past that she only now explores as she and her husband Mike work tirelessly to save her father.  The short history is an increasingly poignant meditation.  Tractors turn into tanks.  The means of production transform into the means of destruction.  All of which occurs as Valentina seems determined on the destruction of the increasingly idiosyncratic, some would say senile, Nikolai.

Like the narrator Nadezhda, Lewycka herself was born in a refugee camp in Kiel, Germany, after WWII.  Her family then moved to England, where she now lives.  What must it be like for a little girl to be born into a refugee camp?  If some babies have auspicious stars and circumstance surrounding their birth, then others seem to get the short straw.  But maybe this short straw is the one that grows; maybe the miracle of such a birth, in such surrounds, is the true measure of an inviolate blessing.  For what we have as its product is Marina Lewycka – a gifted and comedic writer who has blessed us with A Short History of Tractors and has followed it up with equally well-received works such as Two Caravans and We Are All Made of Glue, both of which are now high on my TBR list.

I won’t spoil the fun and reveal how all of this mess is resolved.  It is a comedic feast, set against a dark and troubled history, a story of greed and the desire to escape places and lives that seem to have no hope, lives which, in the end, may provide much more were we to take note of what we have, rather than concentrate on how green our neighbour’s grass might be.

It will be interesting to see how this book ages and whether it justifies its place on the 1,001 Must Read list.  One thing is for sure, it will entertain many readers for many years to come.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

Penguin

ISBN: 9780141020525

324 pages

Source: Personal library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.

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