We Are All Made of Glue

Human, all too human

Marina Lewycka is an instantly likeable writer, funny, intelligent and refreshingly generous in her assessments of people and their motivations. She made her name at the respectable age of 58 with A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, a book that won hearts and prizes with its riotous account of an old man's seduction by a ruthless Ukrainian blonde. Two Caravans, her second novel, centred on a group of eastern European agricultural workers in the UK, and was also well, if not quite so rapturously, received.

Her third novel has much in common with the previous two, addressing serious themes with an admirable lightness of touch and acute sense of humour. Lewycka has become progressively more ambitious in her scope, beginning with a family saga (Tractors) and then, with Two Caravans, taking the implicitly political decision to tell the stories of migrant labourers. We Are All Made of Glue follows the trajectory, encompassing a profusion of "issues", from the miners' strike to the English class system and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The thesis that unites these disparate themes (hence the "glue" metaphor) is that what holds us together is more important than what drives us apart.

The action takes place in north London - "somewhere between Stoke Newington and Highbury" - but this is not a place that David Cameron would recognise as the capital of "broken Britain". Lewycka's London is a homely, friendly sort of place where burglary and knife crime are almost unheard of, where strangers feed one another's cats and where Palestinian immigrants fraternise happily with their Jewish neighbours. The biggest threat to social harmony comes from an array of slimy estate agents and meddlesome social workers - none of whom turns out to be as sinister as he or she appears.

Georgie Sinclair, a middle-aged contributor to the trade magazine Adhesives in the Modern World, is having a mid-life crisis after splitting up with her husband. She strikes up an unexpected friendship with her neighbour, Naomi Shapiro, a 92-year-old Jewish woman. She is drawn both to the old lady's dramatic life story and to the mansion she lives in, the fetid, crumbling Canaan House. Georgie gradually realises that she is not the only one to have noticed the property: the estate agent Nick Wolfe and his accomplice, Mrs Goodney the social worker, are plotting to get their hands on it, even if it means having to ship Mrs Shapiro off to a nursing home.

Through a series of not-quite-credible twists of fate, Mrs Shapiro ends up sharing Canaan House with the family of the huggable Palestinian repairman Mr Ali - cue much bonding and political discussion. At times the tone of these conversations tips into the blatantly didactic: "So you must know about Balfour Declaration?" asks Mr Ali, and goes on to explain it. It is hard to avoid the feeling that Lewycka wanted to write about Israel-Palestine and created a story that enabled her to do so, rather than following the story where it took her.

This is a shame, because Lewycka writes about modern life so well, and when she stays true to a good yarn, as she did in Tractors, the results are usually touching and hilarious. I loved the description here of the recently separated Georgie entering the supermarket and finding herself staring at the bargain shelves: "I was just so dejected at the time that I felt a queasy kinship with the curled-at-the-corners pastries, the sad rejected chicken wings." Her characters can be cartoonish, but at their best they leap off the page: Naomi Shapiro smells "ripe and farty like old cheese, with a faint hint of Chanel No 5".
Despite its sprawling structure and thoroughly chaotic plotting, We Are All Made of Glue is an extremely enjoyable read. Its flaws are somehow forgivable, because it is underpinned by such a fundamentally good-natured and humorous outlook. And it has many important things to say, particularly about the bravery of the wartime generation. For all her clumsy exposition of that generation's politics, Lewycka, you suspect, is most interested in simply telling its stories: "Were they exceptional people, or had the time that they lived through made them exceptional? Had our safe postwar world stripped all the glamour and heroism out of life . . . ?"

I can think of many contemporary novels that are more polished and sophisticated than We Are All Made of Glue. But where Zoë Heller, say, or Jonathan Franzen, dissects humanity's flaws precisely, Lewycka makes you think about giving people a chance for once. And who would you prefer to curl up with on a rainy Saturday afternoon?

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.