We Are All Made of Glue, By Marina Lewycka

London manners muddle with Middle-East politics in another disappointing 'Tractors' follow-up
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The Independent Culture

Marina Lewycka has been carving herself a niche with light fiction about heavy subjects. Her first novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, which brought the horrors of Stalinist Russia to Peterborough, wrought humour and pathos to critical acclaim. Her follow-up, Two Caravans, on immigration, fared less well, and this latest offering, where the ambition is even greater, might be where Lewycka comes unstuck. The plot centres on Georgina Sinclair, a writer for Adhesives in the Modern World magazine, whose marriage falls apart in the first pages of the book in a row over a porcelain toothbrush holder. Newly single, with her teenage son stomping around the house and spending far too much time on cult religious websites, she develops a friendship with a local eccentric, Mrs Shapiro, an ancient Jewish woman of obscure Eastern-European origins who hunts food in the bargain section of Sainsbury's and lives in a crumbling villa up the road from Georgie in Highbury, north London. When Mrs Shapiro has a fall and is hospitalised, the local estate agents, aided by some corrupt social workers, start hovering like vultures over her prime piece of real estate.

But this is not just a tale of north London care services. Mrs Shapiro's home, Canaan House, becomes a metaphor for the claims over Palestine. Enter stage left some Palestinian builders who come to fix up the joint, and stage right, Georgie's teenage son, who is obsessed with the notion that the Antichrist will reappear in Israel; as well as a demonic estate-agent lover, a hopelessly idealistic ex-husband and then glue, everywhere, holding these fragile plot layers together.

Were We Are All Made of Glue a parody of the do-gooding intentions of liberal north London trying to sort out the Middle East, it might have been excellent. The trouble with the novel, though, is not the humour; it is the earnestness. The characters are crudely drawn. The plot lurches from relentlessly middle-class Highbury to the arid Palestinian plains and then up to Yorkshire for some pit disputes, but the history rarely reaches any deeper than a piece of GCSE history coursework. The irreverent humour of middle-class relationships, gussetless knickers and toilet seats, which should leaven it, collapses under the weight of its subject.

While this might prove fun fodder for a book-club meeting, it will be disappointing for those who wish Lewycka would return to the unaffected brilliance of her first novel.