PARTWAY through Marina Lewycka’s second novel, “Strawberry Fields,” Tomasz -- a Polish migrant worker in England for the summer -- finds himself face to face with a dazed chicken. Tomasz too is bewildered. Through a bizarre and inexplicable chain of events, he’s working at an industrial chicken farm, and he feels some kinship for this bloated, breast-heavy beast, which is now being used as a football in a little scrimmage among the other workers. “Suddenly it stops and looks at him, its strange round eyes blinking. He looks back. They stand and face each other, man and bird.” Tomasz is idealistic, a guitar-strumming Bob Dylan fan, a freedom-lover. Impulsively, he snatches the chicken, sprints toward the fence and urges it to run away. He turns back to the others, who are watching him as if he’s crazy. “Rugby,” he explains. “I score.”
Later, on the road, he sees the white and bloody smear of his feathered friend. It’s not easy being a chicken raised for slaughter, even with a lucky break. And it’s not much easier being an illegal immigrant worker in England, where moments of delight and hope are just as quickly squashed by the inexorability of globalization.
“Strawberry Fields” is a comedy about a somber subject: the exploitation of migrant workers, who are drawn or driven to lands of opportunity by degrading and desperate conditions at home, only to become degraded and desperate themselves.
But in Lewycka’s picaresque version, comic nearly always beats tragic. There are a few villains: Vulk, a greasy Ukrainian gangster wannabe with a fake leather jacket that “creaked as he walked”; Vitaly, a strawberry picker-turned-shady recruiter (“employment solution consultant with capacity for advance meeting flexi”); and Farmer Leaping, the weaselly owner of a strawberry farm. But each is drawn more as an opportunity for laughs than as a critique of the human trafficking they enable. They’re more buffoonish than evil.
Lewycka’s almost-heroes, the strawberry pickers working on Leaping’s land, are more interesting. They come from Eastern Europe, China, Malaysia and Africa, each with his or her own reasons, fears, wishes and opinions. Lewycka gives them all voice, alternating between their perspectives (though not with judicious division -- some characters, especially the Chinese, seem afterthoughts).
At times, the author veers into ethnic caricature, and there are several disastrous attempts at the inner monologue of a dog. But more often the voices are real and strong. Yola, the group’s nattering, overbearing, self-appointed supervisor, is funny and sharply sketched. Letters from Emmanuel, an orphan from Malawi, to his sister, are both amusing -- filled with inadvertent double-entendres -- and strangely beautiful, written in twisted, Latinate English and marked by genuine wonder and deep religious feeling. Lewycka also skillfully communicates the hopes and yearning of a Ukrainian girl named Irina, who disdains people of “minimum culture” yet has a winning way about her. And the respectful, good-hearted Andriy, a Ukrainian whose father died in a mining accident and who deplores the unfairness of the global economic system, makes a convincing hero. (Lewycka’s success here is perhaps not surprising; she is the daughter of Ukrainian refugees, and a Ukrainian family living in England was the focus of her hilarious debut novel, “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.”)
The motley “Strawberry Fields” crew is strained by tensions and misunderstandings, but real intimacy, friendship and even improbable romances develop. And when trouble comes -- in the form of Mrs. Leaping, who discovers the farmer and Yola in the act and runs her husband over with her red Honda -- the migrants take off on a chaotic trip through Canterbury, Dover, London and finally to Sheffield, the city of Andriy’s dreams. (“You know, this Sheffield is very beautiful,” Andriy promises Irina. “Really?” Irina replies. “In my book it says it is a large industrial town famous for steel-making and cutlery.”)
Along the way, all are swindled and cheated. A few return home -- a little defeated, but wiser. Others suffer terrible fates. But those are secondary plotlines. As the book progresses, the budding, fragile love between Andriy and Irina dominates. Their romantic advances and reversals can seem a bit childish and tiring, but ultimately their relationship is not frivolous. Andriy and Irina have passports, age and even good looks in common, but they represent entirely different attitudes. Irina is a well-educated child of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution; Andriy traveled all the way from Donbas, a depressed mining town, to Kiev to demonstrate against the political reformers. Irina sees opportunity all around her; Andriy, injustice. They experience the same events and emerge with different impressions. Their union, therefore, is meant to represent something greater than a romance. “Irina, we are two halves of one country,” Andriy says. “We must learn to love each other.” Granted, he’s trying to get her into bed -- but you get the point.
Rather than stressing their commonality, Lewycka is more interested in the immigrants’ colorful differences. Switching narrative perspectives allows her to tell the same story with different reactions. One person’s exhilaration is another’s sadness. The most divergent characters are sometimes from the same country -- Irina and Andriy, or the licentious Yola and her sweet, God-fearing niece.
What holds them together has nothing to do with common history, culture or outlook. They get along because they have to. It’s the only hope they -- and we -- have.