Various pets alive and dead

I've never read any Marina Lewycka, the author of the surprise hit of 2005's A short history of tractors in Ukrainian. She's been hailed as a great comic writer (must be good - she won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for Tractors). Her novels seem to deal primarily with how the past impacts on the present, but not too seriously, there's a large comic edge to each work.

So when I came across Various pets alive and dead, I thought this was a great way into the world of Marina Lewycka. And it was.....ok. I'm afraid my response was only lukewarm. Various pets follows the lives of 20-somethings Serge and Clara, children of a hippie commune, their parents Marcus and Doro in their early 60s and finally on the verge of getting married, and the youngest sibling, Oolie Anna, who has Downs Syndrome.

Serge has abandoned his parents' non-materialistic ideals and is caught up with life as a banker, making big money from the financial collapse, while Clara struggles to retain her parents' outlook on life working as a teacher in a deprived area of the north of England. When Serge and Doro's worlds start to collide though, the past is about to come back to haunt everyone.

As far as humour was concerned, I didn't find it that funny. Sure, there's the odd comic-book moment, and I can't say that it didn't make me smile because it did. But it was never that light, whole-hearted feel that I would get from, say, a P.G. Wodehouse novel. The childrens' attempts to deal with their parents' values and fit them into their own lives didn't ring true to me. And the odd bit of violence towards animals, although I'm sure many people would find it funny, and I'm not suggesting that the author was trying to be cruel, just repulsed me; and ok, that may be because I happen to be a bit daft (although not particularly sentimental) about animals.

The other thing about it was that chronologically it felt wrong. These were late-blooming hippies, their commune being established around the time of the miners' strike in the mid-eighties, so enabling the children of the commune to be working in the City at the time of the latest financial crisis. Problem with this was that I found it all a bit artificial, re-set to the hippies of the late 60s / early 70s and an earlier financial crisis, I think would have worked a little better. As it was it felt strangely set in aspic while trying to be hip and up-to-date. The obligatory happy ending was then toned down by a weird confession as a final full-stop by Marcus, whose voice failed to come to life.

I suspect that this is the kind of novel that some people will adore, but it didn't do it for me....


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