Two Caravans by Maria Lewycka is about the experience of immigrant workers in the UK. It starts out as a kind of people-trafficking gangster story, before evolving into a romance about two young people from different sides of the Ukrainian train tracks. Overall though, Two Caravans is what you might call a political novel, in the sense that it describes social injustices.
This being a novel, rather than a political tract, we see issues from many angles. As the story unfolds, we learn that people from overseas coming to find work in the UK are much safer and less vulnerable to exploitation if they are in the country legally. Then we learn that if people are working legally they are more expensive to employ. Legislation regarding minimum wage, or health and welfare, will apply to them. By contrast, illegal workers have no such costly protections. This leaves them defenceless and expendable, which in turn makes them attractive to some employers – because they are cheap and easy to get rid of if necessary. The employers of the cockle pickers who died at Morecombe Bay in 2004 are an example. So you end up in a situation where making people illegal, produces a job market for them, which might come as a shock for those of a nationalist bent. The desire to “keep immigrants out” in a twisted sort of way, makes a country more likely to attract desperate migrants seeking work. There are some unfortunate people who actually want to be illegal, dangerous as that might be, because it gives them a better chance of finding a job.
Two Caravans does not provide an easy answer to such conundrums. Novels are not usually a good place to find straightforward solutions to social problems. They are, however, very good at allowing us to experience the world as someone else might see it. There is something about the way a character voice sounds in our head that makes it very immediate. To some degree, we become, for example, a Ukrainian strawberry picker toiling in a Kent field. In the end, a capacity for empathy is the best way to encourage people to act compassionately. You can have rules and regulations, but the union reps and social warriors depicted in Two Caravans do not have all the answers. On top of legislation, or idealistic, progressive efforts, you must have fellow feeling, a sense that I could be in that person’s shoes. This understanding will make us treat each other better. The way in which a novel can cultivate this empathy is an important part of what makes it valuable as an art form.
So, I admired Two Caravans. Point of view does jump around a lot, which can occasionally be confusing. I have to admit to not being convinced by the dog’s point of view. So the dog doesn’t know punctuation, or lower case letters, but does know capitals? Even as a kind of shorthand for a non-human viewpoint, this was a bit odd for me. But that detail aside, by the end of the book I was glad to have seen things from so many angles; yes, even the dog’s. The book is funny, shocking, depressing, intelligent, and is a contribution to people’s understanding of each other in our divided times.