Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka, also published under the much less boring title Strawberry Fields, tells the stories of a group of seasonal agricultural workers, primarily an idealistic young Ukrainian aspiring author named Irina, who all find themselves working at the same strawberry farm in Kent. While her romantic vision of England is far from what she expected, Irina still finds a sense of camaraderie with her fellow strawberry pickers despite their different backgrounds, aspirations, and language barriers, as they attempt to make the best of their situation. Their peace is interrupted one evening when an incident involving the promiscuous farmer and his jealous wife leads the entire group on the run from the law and scattered across South East England working various menial, low paying jobs. Each of them meets a host of characters, some immigrants and some Brits, who are equally down on their luck. Some of them give in to despair that this is what their lives have become. Others hang onto hope that it is merely a bump in the road that will lead them to achieving their dreams.
I read about this book in a magazine and with the current political situation in the UK, thought it would be ideal to read. As entertaining as the book is, it is also a necessarily painful eye opener about the truth of the UK’s so-called immigration crisis and how we are able to get affordable food from our supermarkets. I grew up in Kent, where the book is primarily set, and was only vaguely aware that this type of thing was happening. This is why it particularly spoke to me when one of the foreign workers walks into the quaint English village next to an inhumane chicken farm, where an employee had his thumb cut off only a few hours before, and wonders if the village residents are aware of what is happening right on their doorsteps. If the events in this book are even remotely close to the truth (the back of the book does cite some research), they are outright depressing, especially since the fate of some characters is left ambiguous and it is easy to assume the worst.
The book is able to generate this sympathy thanks to its cast of characters with well-rounded positive and negative traits. It doesn’t always make them completely likeable, but it does at least make them realistic. Even Irina and Andriy’s awkward romance, which is almost a parody of the epic romance tropes both of them are hoping for, is surprisingly endearing because it is presented in the way most young romances play out. The bonds they form to get through their difficult times and their never ending hope for a better future are endearing and even prompted me to re-evaluate my own life a little. But at the same time they are disheartening when you realise that there are people in these exact situations in real life who probably never escape the cycle.
And yet these revelations are broken up with moments of dark humour which reach almost Monty Python levels of ridiculousness. My favourite is when Tomasz, a Polish worker with limited English, is talking to his fellow chicken farmer about Big Brother, and both of them repeatedly confuse the Big Brother house with the chicken house they are standing in.
The only negative point I can give this book is the jarring switches between character viewpoints, and even between first and third person, including sudden and pointless jumps into the point of view of a dog.
The social commentary might be a little too heavy for the recreational reader but anyone interested in good political satire will enjoy this as an entertaining, darkly humorous, and informative read.
My rating – 9/10.