‘Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcee. 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.’
Sisters Vera and Nadezhda must aside a lifetime of feuding to save their émigré engineer father from voluptuous gold-digger Valentina. With her proclivity for green satin underwear and boil-in-the-bag cuisine, she will stop at nothing in her pursuit of Western wealth. But the sisters’ campaign to oust Valentina unearths family secrets, uncovers fifty years of Europe’s darkest history and sends them back to roots they’d much rather forget . .
The second phone call came a few days after the first. ‘Tell me, Nadezhda, do you think it would be possible for a man of eighty-four to father a child?’
I love this unexpected question early on in the novel, coming from Nadezhda’s elderly father out of the blue. It’s not the sort of question I’d expect from my father, but as our narrator Nadezhda points out, her father is always straight to the point and when he’s in the grip of a big idea never bothers with small talk or enquiries about her health. My mum read this first and told me I needed to read it. Within a couple of pages I knew why, Nadezha’s father was an elderly Ukrainian engineer, widowed for several years, with a penchant for tractors and straight talking. I was laughing out loud within pages, I couldn’t believe Marina Lewycka had conjured this man out of her imagination, especially since he was sitting on my sofa reading his daily paper.
My father-in-law came to live with us in Spring 2004. The plan was that he would spend summers with us and winters in New Zealand with his other son and family. My husband’s family were from Poland, relocated as children from Poland to England, his father escaped from a labour camp in Siberia. So, not exactly the same story as Nadezhda’s father, but his speech, mannerisms and preoccupations were eerily similar. I should just say that my father-in-law would have been horrified to be propositioned by a woman thirty years his junior. He wore his wedding ring until the day he died, at least twenty years after his wife was killed in a car accident. We didn’t always see eye to eye. However, some of the things that drove me insane when we lived together, became rather endearing and even downright hilarious with time. Blunt speech was a trademark of his, to the point of seeming rude in some cases. Yet, when told someone was offended by his comment, he would say ‘but it was correct, yes?’
One favourite lunch party dissolved into disbelief and giggles when he addressed his godson’s wife and suggested she might be more comfortable sitting on his chair than the kitchen stool since she had a ‘much larger’ bottom than him. He was bewildered by the reaction, believing he was being chivalrous by offering her the dining chair and because she did, in fact, have a much larger bottom. I realised this was a preoccupation of his when he came to visit us proffering a carefully cut out article from his daily paper for me. The subject was scientific research that found women with larger bottoms had longer lives than apple shaped women who stored fat round their middle. He was very happy with his discovery, humming away to himself in the kitchen, as my father and I shut ourselves in the bathroom laughing uncontrollably so we didn’t offend him. I hadn’t realised he was very appreciative of this body type until he asked me to look up the journalist Victoria Derbyshire. He had been listening to her on the radio for some time, but had never seen her in person and despite his son being the director of the media lab at a university he wasn’t up to speed with using the internet yet. I showed him her photograph and he shrugged his shoulders mournfully saying he’d expected her to be a much rounder woman in general but specifically with a ‘much bigger bottom.’ It dawned on me that he felt this was a compliment, something he thought was vital to his idea of female beauty.
He also had a way of making even the most positive things sound like a problem. At a fancy dress party my husband and I threw at home, he watched me working all day to put together a buffet for the guests. Finally, just before people started arriving, he asked if he could take a picture of the buffet table. My husband seemed to think he was impressed by the spread, but his face seem to suggest he was inwardly struggling with what to say. Finally he sighed deeply and said ‘but so much food, how can one possibly choose?’ Later, I received in the post a printed copy of his photograph of the food, showing me that it was important to him. After learning more about his family struggles during the war, and the death of his brother as they were hiding in the Siberian forests, I understood more deeply his utter disbelief at so much choice when weighed against the constant hunger he remembered feeling. Nadezhda tells us about her father’s specialty of ‘Toshiba’ apples – chopped Bramley apples nuked so thoroughly in the microwave they became apple sauce. This was a speciality of my father-in-law with apples that were so hot, they were still cooking in the desert bowl half an hour later. If he wanted to cool food he had a brilliant idea. My brother-in-law had been living. with his father for many years. He was a tree surgeon and had built what they called ‘the cage’ attached to the back of the house. This was a dog run, padlocked and used as a store for chainsaws and other equipment. Any food that needed to cool was placed in the cage on an upturned tree stump, open to the elements on all sides, but sheltered by a roof and away from foraging animals. This made perfect sense in practice, but always caused questions at the dinner table from guests baffled by the instruction ‘fetch the pie from the cage’.
Nadezhda’s father is proud of his late wife’s ability to forage and preserve food to last into the winter season. There is a pantry of store bought supplies, boxes of preserves and fermenting alcohol under the bed, plus a deep freeze full of vegetables and individually portioned meals. Everything labelled and rotated by date.
The only way to outwit hunger is to save and accumulate, so that there is always something tucked away. […] What she couldn’t make had to be bought second hand. If you had to get it new, it had to be the cheapest money could buy, preferably reduced or a bargain. Fruit that was on the turn, tins that were dented, patterns that were out of date, last year’s style. It didn’t matter, we weren’t proud, we weren’t some foolish types who wasted money for the sake of appearance, Mother said, when every cultured person knows what really matters is what’s inside.’
It took three visits for me to work out that what I thought was a kitchen island, in Aleks’s kitchen, was actually a deep freeze with a loose work top laid over it. When he was out we looked in it to find portioned meals labelled by Jez’s mother who had died ten years previously. I thought it was grief that kept the freezer lid closed and it was in part. It was also a survival instinct of someone who had known hunger and that those closest to you, the people you depend on, could be taken from you without warning. All starting with a terrifying knock on the door. Aleks’s father was in the Polish military, shot by the Russians and his family marched to a Siberian labour camp. By the time they escaped and joined the Resistance in a forest camp there was only Aleks and his mother left alive. Behind the comic elements of her book, the author is telling a similar story of political fanaticism, social upheaval, hunger, displacement and terrible loss. I was more understanding when I he told me about his conversation with my sister -in-law who had just bought a property in New Zealand. Apparently, he was most impressed by how quickly his son had ploughed up the tennis courts and planted potatoes.
The part I find most sad, both in the book and for my father-in-law, is that the homeland they crave and hold in their hearts and minds no longer exists. Alek would have been ten when he left Poland, but the Poland he left isn’t there waiting for him. Nadezhda’s father talks at length about a Ukraine that was forty or even fifty years ago. He wants to save one person from the tyranny of communism and give them the freedom of a life in this country. In his head he imagines tyrannical politicians controlling the people, but also the Pastoral beauty of his home country. He will rescue Valentina and in return she will bring to him the Ukraine of his youth with golden wheat fields, lush forests and flowing rivers. Nadezhda who has visited more recently remembers concrete tower blocks and polluted rivers full of dead fish. She tries to tell him that the people are no longer noble peasants, they are consumers longing for Western designer goods. Within weeks of them marrying Valentina has insisted on her own car – ‘not just any old car either. Must be good car. Must be Mercedes or Jaguar at least.’ She also wants second car, for when she’s in the Ukraine. Then it’s the cooker, three rings are not working, but ‘it must be prestigious cooker, must be gas. Must be brown.’ When Nikolai objects because the brown one isn’t on offer, she won’t let it go. He wants her to have ‘crap cooker’ because he is ‘no good meanie’. In the meantime Nadezhda starts to ask for legal advice on her father’s behalf, because there must be a divorce and they can’t bear the thought of this woman owning half of their mother’s things.
I thank the Lord we never had a Valentina to contend with. We sometimes hoped he would find someone, to ease the loneliness and take his head out of the past. The wardrobes full of his mother’s furs and Hanna’s side of the bed, left as if she’d be coming back any moment. We simply didn’t understand each other. If my friends came round it was my welcome break from the care routine – my husband had MS and he was on palliative care – a space to unload a bit, but I couldn’t do that if my father-in-law was also pulling up a chair and joining in. Although I did have it easier than my sister-in-law who found he was in the room when she was on all fours in labour. We had long conversations on the phone where we would both complain that he found us too loud, too opinionated and in my case, a bit too Northern. She would complain that he never shared any praise or positive thoughts about her and I felt exactly the same. I did realise though that he was telling other people – I would tell Jenny that he was proud of her mothering skills and the way she was bringing up his grandsons. She would tell me that he was amazed at the strength I had to keep going, to look after Jerzy every day and not panic if things went wrong. I found that Alek and I bonded more after my husband died, with a shared grief and on his part an understanding and gratitude for the years I spent nursing ‘his boy’. He would ring me every Sunday morning until his eyesight failed him and I missed those calls so much when they were gone. Even now, when I think of him stroking the back of my head as I told him how his son died, it brings a lump to my throat. Every time I read this book it’s a bittersweet experience. It makes me laugh still. I think of all those funny stories and the times we shared, even the hard parts when we didn’t get along. I would do them all again just to spend time with this incredible man. As for Nadezhda and her father Nikolai, I won’t ruin the ending, but there are more twists and turns along the way. For me, every time I pick this book up, I get to spend a little more time with an incredible man who I miss every day.
Published by Penguin 2nd March 2006.