Various Pets Alive and Dead by Marina Lewycka (Guest Reviewer: Booktopia’s Sarah McDuling)

by |February 27, 2012

In her fourth novel, Various Pets Alive & Dead, Marina Lewycka employs her customary brand of keen wit and farcical comedy to explore the ever-present, ever widening gap that separates one generation from the next. Switching scenes between Doncaster and London, this is a refreshingly original and absurdly funny commentary on modern values told with a delicious combination of irony and dark humour.

As well as a cast of fascinating human characters it also features a variety of pets (alive and dead) including, but not limited to, hamsters, dogs and a rapidly increasing family of rabbits.

Various Pets Alive & Dead follows the story of aging hippies, Doro and Marcus, and their three children, Clara the teacher, Serge the genius and the youngest child Oolie-Anna, who has Down’s Syndrome.

In their youth Marcus and Doro, along with a group of likeminded friends, founded a commune in which they all lived together from the late 1960s until the early 1990s. The commune, Solidarity Hall, was based in a dilapidated gothic mansion situated outside Doncaster. The dream was to create a “non-bourgeois, non-private, non-nuclear, non-monogamous community” celebrating co-operation, creativity, non-violence and, of course, free love.

Clara, the oldest of the children, has tried to distance herself from her unconventional upbringing by becoming a primary school teacher. She craves order and cleanliness, having been raised in an environment decided lacking in both qualities, and is determined to make a nice traditional life for herself, with a beautiful home and a rewarding career.

 “It’s the kind of book that makes you worry
about the state of the world,
whilst simultaneously laughing at
how absurd it is.”

Clara wants desperately to connect with her students, to make a difference in their lives. When her class is given a pet hamster, however, a wealth of old tensions and long buried memories begin to resurface – in particular the memory of another hamster, the unfortunate Fizzy, who met with a rather untimely end.

Her younger brother Serge, meanwhile, is busy living a lie. Rather than “peace, love and mung-beans” Serge has embraced a life of expensive suits and insider trading. While his parents believe him to be studying at Cambridge he is in reality working for an investment bank in London.

Serge is painfully aware that, unlike most parents, Marcus and Doro would be horrified to discover that he has abandoned a life of academia to make a fortune in the city. His mother already disapproves of his glasses – a heavy pair of Buddy Holly style frames that he wears in hopes perfecting a “hipster-geek” look. He hates to think how she will react once he finally confesses what he does for a living.

Leading a double life is beginning to take a toll on Serge. While he struggles with money troubles and an unrequited passion for his co-worker, the beautiful Maroushka, his dreams are haunted by the ghosts of dead rabbits that plague him in the same way that Clara is plagued by the memory of Fizzy.

And then there is Oolie-Anna who is bent on escaping the over-protective arms of her mother. Oolie wants independence and freedom. She wants to move out into a place of her own. She also wouldn’t mind a pet hamster to call her own but would much prefer to have a baby.

As the novel begins Doro and Marcus announce to their dubious children that, after almost forty years together, they are finally planning to get married.

There is real poignancy in way the Lewycka explores the generation gap between parents and their children, shown most clearly through the viewpoint of Doro.

 “The ideals of her youth,
which were so radical at the time,
are now regarded by her children as
“quaint life-style whims””

Doro longs for the certainty of her youth. As old age approaches, she perceives that her life has been “a journey backwards into uncertainty –from knowledge to doubt.” At thirty, her world was clearly outlined in black and white. At sixty, however, everything has somehow blended into shades of grey. The ideals of her youth, which were so radical at the time, are now regarded by her children as “quaint life-style whims” – just as Doro used to view the conservative/religious values of her own parents. On the other hand, as far as she can tell, the new generation seems to think the word “revolutionary” is best used to describe the latest mobile phone technology, that listening to Indie music and wearing “ironic” glasses is all it takes to be a rebel. She worries about her children, particularly Oolie-Anna, and as the novel progresses grows increasingly suspicious of Serge.

Lewycka’s hugely successful first book, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, won the Bollinger Everyman Prize for Comic Fiction and the Waverton Good Read Award. Various Pets Alive & Dead is not quite as cynical a read as her first novel, and yet no less hilarious.

In Various Pets Alive & Dead, Lewycka examines a wide range of issues from the disillusionment that accompanies the loss of youth, the dramas that arise from family conflict and changing social values that define each generation. As always, she writes from a comic perspective, and yet manages to maintain a perfect balance between farce and pathos. This is a genuinely funny and thoughtful book that will appeal to fans of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. It’s the kind of book that makes you worry about the state of the world, whilst simultaneously laughing at how absurd it is. Best of all, it’s a book bursting with colourful and original characters, not all them human.

Guest Reviewer: Booktopia’s Sarah McDuling

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