Marina Lewycka's second novel, Strawberry Fields, begins in a field in rural England where a group of
seasonal immigrant agricultural workers from all corners of the world spend their days picking ripening strawberries.
The officious Farmer Leapish's farm is a hardscrabble world where he is more concerned with maximizing both productivity and yield than looking after the well-being of his employees.
The workers are supervised by bossy Yola, whose main aim is to ensure that this community of migrant workers lives in "sexual harmony." Always at her side is her big-nosed niece Marta.
They share a dilapidated trailer with two Chinese girls and tired, disheveled Irina, a Ukrainian who has just arrived from Kiev and has "a faint whiff of chip fat about her."
Thomasz, a poor forty-something musician, leads the men. "With hair to his shoulders and his stringy beard," Thomasz feels as though his life is just slipping away, even as his best friend Emanuel, an African Catholic, lyrically sings his religious songs. Orbiting all of them is Andriy, a miner's son from Donbas still haunted by the disaster he survived, but
in which his beloved father died.
What at first seems like Andriy's mild infatuation with the pure and rather snobbish Irina soon develops into a full-blown romance when the workers are forced to flee after an accident leaves Leapish injured and Yola worrying about the police. What follows is a road story that twists and turns as the group travel throughout the United Kingdom working in nursing homes
and restaurant kitchens, trying their hand at fishing and even waitressing.
This delicate balance is upset when they reconnect with fellow strawberry picker Vitaly. Now a smoothly confident businessman and a shady "recruitment consultant," Vitaly offers up "dynamic employment solutions," convincing his colleagues that working in such places as a chicken processing plant will finally give them all the opportunity to earn plenty of "good English money."
What ensues is a tale of exploitation as these new arrivals, often confused and desperate, even greedy, are taken advantage of by entrepreneurial "mobilfonmen," self-made middlemen who are often their own countrymen and intent to tap into other people's labor, getting rich on harvesting the efforts of these innocent fragments of globalized labor.
Weaving into her plot a Pandora's box of themes and issues, Lewycka also merges her characters' Ukrainian past with their lives on the run, particularly that of Irina and Andriy as their love and commitment to each other steadily grows. New characters are constantly introduced, like the disgusting farm owner Boris, who tries to seduce Irina in exchange for work, and the kindly Neil, who works at a chicken processing plant and who laughs and jokes in front of Thomasz at the state of the animals packed in a small stinking room in readiness for slaughter.
Other characters are like Vulk, who wears a horrible black fake-leather jacket like a comic-strip gangster and makes a living exploiting his own kind. To her credit, Lewycka has many of these characters spinning off into the ether, and some meet with a nasty end while others help the migrants along in their search as they wait for their luck to change or for their time to run out.
If Strawberry Fields sometimes lacks the tightly plotted precision of Lewycka's previous novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, it certainly makes up for it with its ambitious subject matter. The journey of these workers is defined by momentary triumphs and false steps, and the book emerges as a guide for these new immigrants intent
on doing battle in the newly formed global economy where life is often tough and compassion is rare.