Phil: You don’t read many books where a block of flats is a central character, but in The Lubetkin Legacy by Marina Lewycka, the building plays a central role in the plot.
Story 1 – Lily Lukashenko dies and her dying words to son Bertie are “Don’t let them get the flat.” He has been living with her since the breakup of his marriage, unable on his actor’s salary, to afford anything else. To be fair, his acting work seems to be mostly “resting” and grumbling about the success of George Clooney. To be fair, George probably can’t quote Shakespeare as well as Berthold, but that’s as good as it gets.
In an effort to avoid eviction, he moves the lady from the next door hospital bed in to impersonate Lily with modestly comic effect, especially if you consider the names of Eastern European meals to be amusing.
Along the way, there is much rage about the problems faced by people relying on the state for an income. Officialdom comes calling many times, although one particular functionary eventually lifts Bertie out of his gloom.
Story 2 – Violet is a young Kenyan-born woman who gets a job in the city working in “wealth preservation”. This turns out to be tax avoidance and plundering African countries funds by overcharging the health services for basic supplies. She quickly grows a conscience and decides that the dream job really isn’t.
The two characters are neighbours and interact sporadically. There is a plot involving building plans that involve grubbing up a patch of cherry trees to be replaced with executive flats.
If I’m honest, Bertie ends up OK, but pretty much nothing else nice happens in the end. Violet is back in Kenya working for an NGO, but her efforts to expose dodgy dealings don’t go well. The trees get cut down. One character dies due to lack of money. If this is what The Times considers “A joy to read”, then I can only assume the reviewer likes seeing poor people get a kicking. Even those officials who went into public service are worn down and cynical. Everyone assumes that bad things are just going to happen and you might as well accept it.
One of the central plot strands, that Lily had an affair with the architect Lubetkin who designed the flats and left her a tenancy, is never tied up. Bertie finds a plan under the sofa but that’s it.
I’d planned for this review to be a bit more upbeat, but after a couple of days mulling the book over since finishing it, I’m just becoming more miserable about the story. I think that’s partly the point. Lewycka has written several other books including the well known A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian and I suspect that these are also full of downtrodden people. You certainly feel for the characters (OK, I certainly do, maybe the Times doesn’t) and the lives they are trapped in.
The contrast between people working in “wealth preservation” and those at the bottom of the pile constantly being ripped off is pretty powerful. Very much a serious message wrapped in pretty paper.