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Sunday, April 3, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

Book Review

First novels: Flawed fathers, protesting progeny

Seattle Times book critic

Marina Lewycka

From Shakespeare's King Lear to Paul Theroux's Allie Fox in "The Mosquito Coast," problem fathers have been a staple of literature. The three debut novels below take strikingly different approaches to troublemaking dads:

"A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian"
by Marina Lewycka
Penguin Press, 294 pp., $24.95

Pappa Mayevskyji, a Ukrainian World War II refugee who's spent most of his adult life in England, is 84 years old, recently widowed, and about to get married again — to "a fluffy pink grenade" of a woman who's looking for any kind of ticket she can find out of present-day Ukraine.

Valentina, the grenade in question, is 36 years old and already married with a teenage son. But that's not about to stop her from hopping aboard what she perceives to be the Pappa Mayevskyji gravy train.

Pappa's rush to marry this predatory creature is enough to convince his daughters, Vera and Nadezhda, he's lost his marbles — especially when he starts asking them for "loans" to help underwrite Valentina's shopping sprees.

What to do?

As the sisters see it, their dad has become "an eighty-four-year-old teenager," mesmerized by Valentina's breasts ("twin warheads" lifted into place by a "lace-trimmed green satin rocket launcher of a bra"). Clearly it's not going to be easy to tear him away from her — although his new project, writing a history of the tractor, may provide one helpful distraction ...

Marina Lewycka's "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian" starts out riotously funny, especially in its depictions of Vera and Nadezhda's fervent anti-marriage tactics and their dad's sly evasion of them. But there's some deadly history behind the Mayevskyji family story, and it ends up making this a more sobering and soulful book than the reader might initially expect. As narrator Nadezhda acknowledges, "I had thought this story was going to be a knockabout farce, but now I see it is developing into a knockabout tragedy."

Coming Up

Tash Aw

The author will read from "The Harmony Silk Factory" at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or

You can almost hear the structure of the novel creaking as the tone of the narrative shifts. But Lewycka proves as skillful in recounting wartime travails as she is in portraying the escalating domestic warfare between Valentina and her octogenarian spouse.

Just as deft is Lewycka's take on the sparring relationship between the two sisters: older Vera, who retains some memories of the family's wartime experience, and Nadezhda, 10 years younger, who is the family's "precious peacetime baby." This discrepancy in age and memories, Nadezhda feels, means that they "grew up in the same house but lived in different countries."

The book's prose occasionally strays from sharply incisive to baldly abrupt. But overall, Lewycka — who was born in 1946 to Ukrainian refugee parents — draws on her family background to striking, winning effect.

"The Harmony Silk Factory"
by Tash Aw
Riverhead, 378 pp., $24.95

Tash Aw

War — and the way a father took part in it — also plays a pivotal role in this ambitious and accomplished novel by a Malaysian writer of Chinese descent, now living in London.

Narrated from three points of view that have scarcely any overlap in the way they see the novel's central character, "The Harmony Silk Factory" is the story of textile merchant Johnny Lim, a boy from out of the swamps of British colonial Malaya who rose to become a powerful, fear-inducing business mogul following the Japanese occupation of Malaya during World War II.

In the case of Johnny's son Jasper, "fear-inducing" should be corrected to "hate-inducing." Jasper, who narrates the first third of the book, sees his father as "a liar, a cheat, a traitor, and a skirt-chaser," a murderer and a Communist, as well as (Jasper rants on) "short, squat, uncommunicative, a hopelessly bald loner with poor social skills."

Aw's writing skills, by contrast, are so seductive that you can hardly wait to get to know this "monster," especially given the author's nicely planted hints that Jasper, behind his barbed disdain and arrogance ("I have history on my side"), may be missing vital information about his father. The bigger Johnny is built up in Jasper's mind, the less real he becomes: "otherworldly, not flesh and blood at all but a phantom."

Jasper's grasp of the character of his mother, Snow, is no less histrionic: "She was magical, compelling, and full of love, and I have no memory of her." That's because she died giving birth to him. But a diary recording her early days of marriage survives. And it serves, in the novel's middle third, to contradict most of what came before it. In it, we see Johnny shrink to a peripheral, pathetic figure with command over almost nothing in his life.

A belated honeymoon for Johnny and his wife (with three male chaperones! — two British, one Japanese) results in shipwreck on an uninhabited island off Malaya where sexual tensions spark in every direction. It all adds up to a heady brew.

But is Snow's account any more accurate about the mysterious Johnny than Jasper's?

In the final third of the novel, narrated by Peter Wormwood — one of the two British honeymoon chaperones — we meet a Johnny far cannier than we get from either Jasper or Snow. We also see half the ground rules that we thought were guiding this narrative turned upside down.

Tash Aw has pulled off a splendid trick. While making the enigma of Johnny more vivid as he goes from one narrator to the next, he has studiously avoided explaining him. Instead, the purpose of the book seems to be to use Johnny's mystery as a way to illuminate the Malay world around him, even as the man himself disappears inside his own contradictions. The resulting novel is as disorienting as it is pleasurable, as satisfying as it is inconclusive.

"Please Don't Come Back from the Moon"
by Dean Bakopoulos
Harcourt, 275 pp., $23

Dean Bakopoulos

The working-class dads in this Detroit-set novel have broken the first cardinal rule of fatherhood. One by one, in a wonderfully spooky opening chapter, they've all ditched their families and headed, supposedly, for the moon. Even the stragglers among them have gone "because they felt they had to, because they had to prove they were capable of acting on that buried impulse as well as any other man."

Bakopoulos, narrating this communal disaster from the collective point of view of the abandoned teenage sons, captures the smell of the neighborhood lawns and August city heat ("a steamy layer of ash and grit so toxic that breathing made you feel stoned and delirious") and makes vivid a post-industrial reality where factories "vaporize" and unemployment is rife. His surreal premise cuts to the quick of the desolation felt by deserted families.

But as note-perfect as its opening is, the novel doesn't pan out. The boys' collective narrative is largely dropped, and a more "realist" manner takes over that feels less sharp, less incisive.

After the narrator lets us know he's a writer in the making, the novel focuses mostly on his story. His mother, family and friends act out in different ways in protest against their plight, yet you don't really get beneath the skins of any of them.

It's those first 25 pages that work — and they're almost worth the price of the book. Bakopoulos may want to follow their cue more closely in his next effort.

Michael Upchurch: He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has published four novels.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company



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