Marina Lewycka's previous three novels, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Two Caravans and We Are All Made of Glue adroitly twinned comedy with serious issues, and in particular the fate of immigrants from previously communist European countries. In her fourth, Various Pets Alive and Dead, she examines the economic crisis of 2008 from the perspective of opposing camps: ex-hippies and capitalists.
Retired teachers Marcus and Doro spent two decades in a commune espousing a hatred of capitalism and the equitable (even if not always equable) sharing of all resources, from food to lovers. Unbeknown to them, however, their son Serge is not doing his PhD in Cambridge but rather raking in mega bucks as a quantitative analyst at an investment bank in the City, and desperately in love with a scythe-sharp capitalist from the Ukraine, Maroushka.
As in her first two novels, Lewycka deftly captures the material appetite of Eastern European immigrants who, unlike liberals in the free world who may romanticise communism, know its grim reality and strive assiduously for something better.
Marcus and Doro's daughter Clara is a primary school teacher, while Oolie, their adopted daughter who has Down's syndrome and is portrayed with sensitivity and affection, is keen to move into her own flat.
The book's chapters centre on different family members. Lewycka's trademark humour is present in abundance. As in her previous work, the European characters' directness when coupled with their idiom is hilarious: after Maroushka spots Serge with Doro, she asks him: "Who is old woman you meeting today, Serge?" Following a party, she comments: "I think you have been very much drunk. You have fallen on floor."
Lewycka is not only witty but astute. Regarding the ideals of the Sixties, she shows how the practice wasn't as easy as the theory: for all their rejection of monogamy, there was fierce competition between the commune women, while beatific sharing was quickly superseded by resentment at those individuals who took more than they contributed.
Lewycka has scrupulously researched theoretical maths and the financial markets in order to portray Serge's life, but conveys the causes of the economic crash in an unforced way. Her eye for detail means that scenes are vivid: Serge notes that the men visiting the trading floor in cheap suits and "limp polyester-mix shirts" are "the sort of guys who work in ... the Inland Revenue or FSA – not sharp enough to earn big money, and hungry for revenge on those who do." Meanwhile, the effects of the economic crash on ordinary people are evident in the community in which Clara works.
It is a charming, beautifully observed novel, and those who label Lewycka a merely whimsical or quirky comic writer woefully underestimate her abilities.
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