Sunday April 29, 2012
Family ties and tangles
Review by SHARIL DEWA
Various Pets Alive And Dead
Author: Marina Lewycka
Publisher: Fig Tree/Penguin, 367 pages
IN her debut novel, A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian, Marina Lewycka explored the themes of human fraility, strength, emotions and desires, and the value of family. Her protagonist and narrator of that novel is a middle aged woman looking after her aged father, a man who lived in a period before and during World War II when – despite the hardships – life was more straightforward and simpler. Into this mix is added the narrator’s sister who is determined that her father’s current “girlfriend” will not replace their mother.
In her fourth novel, Various Pets Alive And Dead, Lewycka explores those themes again, creating once again a deliciously dysfunctional British family. Marcus and Doro (short for Dorothy) Free are a couple of old hippies who lived the communal good life in the 1970s and who tried to raise their children to believe in their left-wing, socialist, wholegrain values.
As is so often the way, however, their children, Clara and Serge (named after revolutionaries, of course), have rebelled against their parents and taken very conventional paths – primary school teacher and financial trader in the City of London respectively.
The novel is divided into chapters with Doro, Clara and Serge taking the lead in each chapter and letting us into their lives, with encounters with their circle of friends and colleagues providing the plot.
Doro’s chapters focus on her motherly concern for Clara, Serge and adopted daughter Oolie-Anna who has Down Syndrome, as well as her life with Marcus, moving from the swinging and placard-waving 1960s and 1970s to their support for Britain’s great miner’s strike in the 1980s, and mixing in their own brand of left-wing politics with the rough and ready survival philosophy of the locals in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, where they live.
The more contemporary storyline is played out against the the financial crisis of 2008, with banks collapsing, share prices falling through the floor, and Woolworths, that icon of the “nation of shopkeepers” closing its doors. Serge is in the thick of it, of course, watching the stock market index rise and fall every hour and making calculated decisions about what stocks to buy and sell. There is a sexual component to the tension, too, as Serge has the hots for fellow trader Maroushka, whose broken English and Eastern European naiveity is extremely attractive in Serge’s eyes.
Meanwhile, Clara’s troubles are closer to home as she battles to educate the children (and parents) of a Doncaster council estate and aches with frustration at her lack of success in landing a man.
Though she is a supporting character, Oolie-Anna is the most grounded Free character. She dissolves Doro’s outdated idealism and she is the most outspoken of the Free children, particularly when it comes to the tricky and embarrassing (and perhaps even taboo) topic of sex and wanting to have sex.
What Clara and Serge are not able to put into words, much less into action, Oolie-Anna, with her broken speech and disability, openly (and perhaps gleefully) talks about the joys of desiring sex.
Various Pets Alive And Dead is driven by the conversation between the three lead characters and the people who surround them. It has to be said that Lewycka has a very sharp ear for dialogue and provides her characters with believable banter that is filled with wry humour and witty lines that made this reviewer laugh out loud more than once and keep turning the pages.
Kudos also to Lewycka for showcasing her lead characters as ordinary people who, despite being the protagonists, do not always get what they desire.
Applause must be given to how Doro, especially, is portrayed; this near-senior citizen with three adult children is seen as being attractive by a man, which is so refreshing in these youth-worshipping times and well worth the hilariously embarrassing scenarios that ensue!
Fans of Lewycka’s previous novels will be glad to know that there is even more of her wit and humour in Various Pets Alive And Dead.
Additionally, there is also an underlying romanticism imparted by the left-wing socialist idealism from the 1960s that Doro and her husband still espouse. Of course, naysayers will point out that such idealism is not so practical in the 21st century, yet, in Lewycka’s hands, the passion still comes across, especially in Doro.
On a personal note, I found Clara’s teaching amoments more relatable than Serge’s mathematical calculations in the stock market, primarily because this reviewer finds it easier to wrap his head around a classroom full of eight-year-olds than a stock market index.
In the end, though, fans of Lewycka’s previous three novels will love this one. For those who are just discovering her, Various Pets Alive And Dead is a very good start.