Guest review: Gabriel Ng on Various Pets Alive and Dead by Marina Lewycka

Fig Tree (Penguin)
March 2012 (buy paperback)

review by Gabriel Ng

The title of Various Pets Alive and Dead might make you think it involves lots of cute animal stories and some kind of furry genocide. Instead, it’s a very political novel about the global financial crisis and the failure of the leftist ideals, played out through the intergenerational conflict of a family of hippy-commune escapees. This probably doesn’t sound like the most fertile ground for a comic novel, but its author, Marina Lewycka, milks the politics for as many laughs as possible, and even manages to throw in the odd ill-fated hamster or doomed family of rabbits.

Lewycka’s fourth novel, Various Pets Alive and Dead tells the story of Serge and Clara, and their mother Dora, who, along with her partner Marcus and the other quirky members of their collective, raised her children in an old country house on a healthy diet of free love, socialism and lentils.

Unbeknownst to his parents, Serge has chucked in his Maths PhD and is earning big bucks at a trading firm, FATCA (geddit?). Clara, on the other hand, has stuck to her family ideals and is working as a teacher at an underprivileged school in the same area she grew up, Doncaster (which is not, as I thought when I put my hand up for this book, a suburb of Melbourne of Westfield Shoppingtown fame, but an area in England’s de-industrialised north). Dora, meanwhile, reminisces about her radical youth and cares for her youngest child, Oolie-Anna, who has Down Syndrome.

In tone, it reminded me a lot of those other popular British comic writers, Nick Hornby and Sue Townsend, and it starts off with a lot of promise. Readable and contemporary, I thought I was in for something like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, not only because it engages with current world events, but because it seemed like it might tap into the rich literary fodder of family relationships: those deep, entwined bonds of love and resentment and dependence.

Unfortunately, Various Pets Alive and Dead doesn’t deliver on an emotional or a political level, because neither the characters nor the plots are engaging enough to sustain interest.

Deluded Serge pines for his sexy Ukrainian co-worker, Maroushka, and digs a hole for himself through illegal trading. Morose Clara pines for the sexy head teacher and tries to help one of the chavs from her class, who may or may not be a thief. The most likable character, Dora, considers a fling with a not-so-sexy counsellor and struggles with the idea of Oolie-Anna living independently. They all pick over the memories of life in the old manor, Solidarity Hall, mulling over mysterious parentage and the cause of a fire that eventually ended the whole social experiment.

The above describes almost all of the action of the novel, except for a few ridiculously unlikely occurrences (such as Serge’s case of mistaken identity). The mostly separate narratives don’t provide enough interaction between the main characters, and there is an absence of rising and falling action. Instead, each short chapter is often a frame for a social observation instead of dramatic development, making the plot feel episodic. The pace picks up towards the end, but there are other, more significant issues with the conclusion.

Similarly, the politics start out tantalisingly grey, but end up being disappointingly black and white.

Lewycka has obviously done a lot of research into the banking world, and her portrayal of a trading company is of an all-consuming, fast paced and cosmopolitan environment. Naturally, its denizens are obsessed with wealth, but you can see the appeal of it, especially for Serge, who is striking out against a materially deprived upbringing.

On the other hand, the portrait of life in Solidarity Hall and its socialism is affectionate, but heavy with an irony that suggests that Lewycka has limited respect for the hippie lifestyle. The youthful Dora and Marcus are only able to afford the run-down country manor thanks to one of their friend’s inheritance. The radicals are all conspicuously middle class and end up isolated from the coal mining community they hoped to inspire to revolution. The tenants of free love are either unattractive, as embodied in a perpetually pantless letch, or the cause of destructive secrets. And Serge’s love interest, Maroushka, the only character to live the reality of a communist government, has become a vicious proponent of the capitalist system.

There’s an interesting contrast between the members of the commune, who treat their cause with deadly seriousness but end up having little impact, and the bankers who act like their market manipulation is all a game while destroying people’s livelihoods.

Unfortunately, it all descends into easy demonisation of bankers, notalgia for idealism, and affirmation of middle class values. Characters that start out being morally ambiguous are flattened into bad-guy stereotypes and get their comeuppance. Bastards are slapped, bitches have their hair pulled, ill-gotten money is lost.

Worst of all, Lewycka seems to have no other ideas of how to resolve the three stories than to pair everyone off as if marriage or coupledom were some undeniable law of physics towards which all people eventually gravitate.

As the last quibble in a long line of quibbles, there aren’t even that many animals in it, alive or dead. I’m not saying I wanted a mountain of furry corpses, but it seems like the title was just tacked on to suck in animal lovers.

Look, it’s not all bad. It’s easy to read, a good airport or beach novel. The characters and settings are distinct and memorable. But its beta-blocker compulsion to keep things light and the extremely pat resolution mean that Various Pets Alive and Dead ends up being more Hugh Grant rom-com than Franzen-like book of the times.

Gabriel Ng is another Melbourne-based reader, writer and blogger. He blogs about books and whatever else takes his fancy on, and has had short stories and poems rejected by OverlandWet Ink and numerous writing competitions. His first novel is due out in 2052.

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