Marina Lewycka's new novel features a running joke about the glories of Sheffield. Andriy, one of the sparring young lovers who bicker their way like a Ukrainian Beatrice and Benedick across the underclass England of Two Caravans (Fig Tree, [pound]16.99), has visited the country once before. He came as a small child when his Donbas miner father brought him with a fraternal delegation to the socialist paradise of south Yorkshire. To impress posh but innocent Irina from Kiev, he recalls (or pretends to) that noble city whose citizens are renowned for the "kindness of their welcome to strangers", where "cool water plays from many marble fountains", and purple bougainvillea adorns the palace of a wise blind leader, "Vloonki".
On a raw March day when the wind whips in from the Peaks, Sheffield seems to be still working on the bougainvillea. Yet Andriy's vision, as David Blunkett would confirm, is not just much ado about nothing. The fountains cascade in grandly revamped squares while, in Marina Lewycka's kitchen, a bowl of steaming, blood-red borscht awaits the traveller.
The picaresque plot of Two Caravans sends her Ukranian couple north from Kent through a darkly comic landscape of hope and terror, exploitation and survival, and into a perilous Sheffield showdown at journey's end. Here, Chaucer meets Chomsky. We share, via farce, romance, satire and a fair amount of the endearing taste for "silliness" that the author owns up to, the often-invisible tales of the global migrants who feed, serve and care for bourgeois Britain, all the way from the creche to the crematorium.
"Revealing hidden worlds is one of the fun things you can do as a writer," says Lewycka, after the borscht is duly scoffed. "Being an immigrant myself, I've always been aware of the seething world that's just below the surface of everyday life... I shop in the market in Sheffield, and that really is a microcosm of the globe. Everybody's there, and you pick up all these different languages... but the funny thing is that I never meet a single person that I know from my normal middle-class life". Those she sees in the local Tesco.
"I've always been interested in the idea of people moving and shifting: migration and immigration," she explains, this friendly and funny German-born Ukrainian Yorkshirewoman, married to a New Zealander and with a daughter who works for a maternal health scheme in Malawi. Two years ago, her domestic comedy A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian captured the origins and outcomes of those shifts on an intimate scale. The book gave Lewycka an unexpected and much-loved bestseller. Now, Two Caravans explores over its broader comic canvas the untold stories behind the aisles of superstore Britain.
Lewycka was born to Ukrainian parents in a Kiel refugee camp, in the midst of the tragic post-war "churning" that underlies the farce of Tractors... She notes that equally vast waves of souls still flow through Europe, but now to service the "globalised labour market". Her new novel dips into this "subterranean world". Its multi- national toilers move from the toxic Eden of a Kentish strawberry field through squalid poultry farms, run-down seaside hotels and gangster-run restaurants, with Andriy and Irina struggling to dodge the sex traffickers who have their keen reptilian eyes on her. In place of the "solidarity, humanity, self-respect" that Andriy was brought up to revere in the Donbas, damaged and dangerous cross- border "mobilfonmen" learn to "harvest the efforts of the others - the losers".
The research that underpins the novel stretched from a TUC study of Ukrainian workers in Britain and Felicity Lawrence's expose of intensive farming Not on the Label to the author's own visits to strawberry and chicken farms, more benign than the rustic hell- holes she depicts. "I worked myself up into a fury," she says, about the evidence of …