“Even as we are moving down that long lonesome road, destination unknown, there is always something we are leaving behind us.”
You see, I bought Two Caravans because usually when I buy secondhand literary fiction it turns out amazingly well. (See Rebecca and Cloud Atlas.) Also it has a quirky cover, and sounded a bit different. I actually think that was the problem.
It’s a novel about a group of strawberry pickers, all immigrant workers, who sort of career through life searching for various things: security, love, money, family. There’s Yola, a Polish matron, and her evangelical niece Marta; Tomasz, also Polish, enamoured of the guitar; Emanuel, a naïve eighteen-year-old from Malawi; two Chinese girls known by the other characters only as Chinese Girls One and Two; and the Ukrainians Andriy and Irina, whose will-they-won’t-they romance forms something like the core of the novel. And, as far as that core goes, it’s well done: their mutual misunderstandings and anxieties are rather endearingly framed through a narrative voice which switches point of view between them.
And that would be fine if the narration only switched between Andriy and Irina, but it doesn’t. It cycles between all the characters, sometimes on the same page, which makes the whole thing rather irritatingly bitty and also contributes to a wider sense of purposelessness which really ruined the book for me. The thing is, Two Caravans doesn’t really know what kind of book it wants to be. Is it a gently humorous look at the life of the immigrant worker? No; there are too many guns, too many ruined lives, for that. Is it, then, a gritty treatment of the state of British capitalism? You must be joking; any novel that features the narrative perspective of a dog is palpably too lighthearted for such a topic. Is it a sweet romance? Maybe; but then there’s that scene with the battery chickens. The separate elements – humour, darkness, romance – don’t gel well at all, and the characters, the only possible saving grace for this kind of novel, never really become more than stereotypes.
Two Caravans is a novel that demonstrates why whimsy is so hard to pull off. There are a few gems here, but they’re so few and far between that I don’t think it’s really worth reading.