Fig Tree, £12.99, 246pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Various Pets Alive and Dead, By Marina Lewycka
Friday 09 March 2012
In the acknowledgments to Marina Lewycka's wonderfully funny fourth novel, she thanks her editors for "killing off several minor characters". It's no surprise. Lewycka's fictions fill up with occasional figures, rather as if they were Altman films. Although it means that readers have their work cut out remembering who fits in where, the sheer jubilation of her plots and sub-plots comes in part from the bedlam that her invented population causes. The fun is hectic or nothing.
In this case, we look from three viewpoints at what has become of a mother (Doro), her daughter (Clara) and son (Serge), all of whom have a memory of a commune near Doncaster, founded in the late 1960s, and at full tilt for two decades. The novel bounds between memories of the commune and the financial meltdown of 2008, when Serge is working as a "quant" – a quantitative analyst buying and selling risk in the Stock Exchange.
Lewycka's novels make no bones about engaging with political issues: the abuse of foreign workers, Palestinian grievances, the treatment of the elderly, and, in this case, the corruption of money markets. There is a gleeful irony in dunking the child of Marxist and feminist idealists in the swamp of profiteering that brought down Lehman Brothers, and half the global economy. Lewycka also has a pop at the loopier shenanigans of the commune, not least when the miners' strike takes place. She extracts more gorgeous michael out of the behaviour of social services and schools: Clara is a primary teacher, still in Doncaster.
Her best characters are Mr Philpott, the Shakespeare-quoting school caretaker; Maroushka, a Ukrainian go-getter in the world of financial gambles; and Doro's adopted Down's Syndrome daughter, Oolie-Anna. Lewycka also plays her habitual trump card: a perfect ear for the malapropisms of dialect, regional or international, and of childhood.
But her most striking quality is empathy. She loves her characters; in the colossal cast, there are really only two villains. Doro is not unlike Georgie in We are All Made of Glue: eccentric and self-knowing but also accessible. As a writer, Lewycka is somewhere between Hilary Mantel in her satirical mode, and Sue Townsend. Like both, she is riotously entertaining.
Various Pets Alive and Dead speeds between the main three characters, its chapters often short and beguiling. Lewycka's habit is to leave little mysteries, and you may have to be attentive to see them all solved. It's true that the sheer number of events can be overwhelming – they multiply like the rabbits who feature frequently – and the relationship between Serge's trading and corruption in South Yorkshire is only just the right side of baffling. Lewycka has her work cut out knotting up this baggy, sprawling novel. But it is a dizzy, eye-watering treat.
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