by Marina Lewycka
How do you write a compelling story of the most blatant exploitation of migrant workers? Marina Lewycka chose to tell this bittersweet tale with humour but it nevertheless left me feeling ashamed that such unfair treatment of our fellow human beings goes on in this country right under our noses. The Archers it ain’t.
The central characters are a disparate group – 2 Ukrainians, 3 Poles, a Malawian a Chinese, a Malaysian and a weird dog - working on a Kent strawberry farm under appalling conditions. The eponymous Two Caravans are what they live in, sleeping head to toe in bunk beds without running water. For this privilege they pay rent of £50 per week plus £49 for food and, it goes without saying, all the strawberries they can eat!
Events take a turn when the farmer is rumbled by his wife for having “slap and tickle” with Yola the Polish ‘foreman’ of the group. What results is a road trip through southern England, the workers finding jobs in a variety of places including, in one particularly ghastly scene, a chicken farm.
It’s a roller-coaster of a book involving romance, action and excitement and really scary gun-toting gang masters. I did, however, feel a bit uncomfortable with the sometimes patronising interpretation of the characters. Surely they couldn’t all be so naïve?
Two Caravans is an easy read, buoyed by its optimistic romance and moments of farce, but it never shrugs off the sense that a more hard-hitting story has been made palatable for popular consumption.