Ripe for the Picking

By Louis Bayard,
a novelist and reviewer
Tuesday, September 25, 2007

STRAWBERRY FIELDS

By Marina Lewycka

Penguin Press. 291 pp. $24.95

I'm glad I'm not Marina Lewycka's agent, because I've done a terrible job of pitching "Strawberry Fields." Every time I try to describe it to friends, it comes out like this: "See, there are these Eastern European migrant workers in England, and they go from one terrible job to the next, and they can't catch a break to save their lives. One of them is kidnapped by a pimp, two others are pretty much sold into slavery, and there's a mongrel who escaped from a dogfighting ring . . . ." If anybody's still listening by this point, the next line pretty much clears the room. "And it's really quite funny."

Of course, it's more than just funny. It's also sad and wise and tender and generous and even sexy. But it's not a book that makes large claims for itself, any more than its characters do. Irina, a recent emigre from Kiev, can't imagine anything remotely interesting about her colleagues: "a bunch of strawberry pickers living in two trailers." And yet among these pickers we find: Tomasz, a melancholy folk singer with feet only a dog could love. Emanuel, a devout Malawian who has come to England seeking "canal knowledge." Andriy, a Ukrainian miner's son pining for his long-ago Sheffield sweetheart, an "Angliska rosa" with the improbable name of Vagvaga Riskegipd. And Yola, the petite and voluptuous Polish supervisor who dreams of finding a father for her Down syndrome son and who, at night, consolidates her management position by sleeping with the farm's owner.

That leads to a nasty showdown with the farmer's wife and a Ferrari, and the little "Garden of England" is soon dispersed, as the strawberry pickers scatter across the country, taking jobs in nursing homes, in restaurants, on fishing piers and, in a sequence as horrific as anything by Upton Sinclair, in a poultry processing plant, where the chickens "look more like misshapen ducks -- huge bloated bodies on top of stunted little legs, so that they seemed to be staggering grotesquely under their own weight -- those of them that can move at all."

Periodically, a plot threatens to emerge out of all this. Emanuel hunts for his sister; Yola narrows down her matrimonial choices; Andriy and Irina embark on a tentative romance of their own, threatened at intervals by her snobbery (she's a professor's daughter, after all) and his stubbornness, not to mention a shady operator named Vitaly and a vile gangster-procurer named Vulk. But mostly Lewycka is interested in how people keep from being strangled by the "tentacles of globalization" in a world "run by mobilfonmen."

It is to the author's credit that her satirical impulse never disguises the terrible sadness of her characters' lives. If anything, the comedy and drama draw from the same source: the gap between dreams and numbing reality. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, for instance, at the Indian shopkeeper who worships Julia Child: "She is a lady of extreme age and wisdom. In her long years, which unfortunately are now over, she gave many cheery indications of the important things in life."

"Let's Talk English" is the guidebook most cited here, and Lewycka is pleased to let her people do just that. Emanuel, who likens his adopted language to "a coilsome and slippery serpent," speaks of being "beloned" at the age of 12 and waiting for someone "with beatings in my heart." That nasty Vulk, with his rattail and his "chip-fat smile," pockets Irina's passport with a snarling "I keep for you. Is many bed people in England. Can stealing from you" before bidding adieu: "Bye-bye, little flovver. Ve meet again. Maybe ve mekka possibility?"

Dialect humor, of course, is as old as the hills, but the sentence constructions of Lewycka's migrants suggest people hurling themselves at the language as fiercely as they chase the capitalist dream. (Even the dog who accompanies them speaks in his own upper-case Joycean idiom: "I AM DOG I AM GOOD DOG I SIT WITH MY MAN I EAT DOG FOOD MEAT MAN EATS MAN FOOD.") That dream is relinquished only under great duress as the strawberry pickers must choose whether to stay in England or go home.

Even if some of them end up back in their homelands, "Strawberry Fields" suggests there will be plenty more to take their place. Ukrainians and Russians and Poles and Africans, young and not-so-young, chasing the good life and, along the way, subjecting themselves to untold exploitation and abuse -- and the possibility of companionship and laughter. One way or another, these strawberry fields are forever.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company