Show Hide image

Various Pets Alive and Dead

While people have responded to the worsening economic climate by going to see theatrical comedy in their droves, the comic novel has never been more in the doldrums. Here we are, longing for laughter, gagging for a giggle and packing out the Young Vic, the National and the Donmar Warehouse, yet the bookshops present us with more and more grim lit to read.

Thank heavens, then, for Marina Lewycka, whose Various Pets Alive and Dead made me laugh at least once every chapter. Like a clutch of other recent novels, it's set in 2008 and involves a multicultural cast. Unlike these, its subject is not just how the financial crisis has affected young professional Londoners but also how those on the verge of retirement, redundancy and old age see it.

Doro and Marcus are of the 1960s counterculture generation and once lived in a commune where free love and leftist politics flourished. Their daughter, Clara, has stayed up north in Doncaster, teaching, and their adopted daughter, Oolie, who has Down's syndrome, lives at home. But their son, Serge, is living a very different life. His parents believe him to be doing a maths PhD at Cambridge but he's got a £90,000-a-year job as a "quant", working for Fatca traders in the City.

The contrast between left-wing parents and capitalist children is the kind of comedy that readers of this magazine are likely to relish and Lewycka, one of our most astute chroniclers of familial discomfort, goes to town. In short, pithy chapters, she draws us into the clashing worlds of Serge, hopelessly in love with Marou­shka (yet another of Lewycka's Ukrainian seductresses whose broken English fails to conceal a ruthless grasp of finance), the chaotic, idealistic and kindly Doro and the spirited but still single schoolteacher Clara. Although they teeter on the edge of stereotype, the characters are sympathetic and Lewycka presents them in the breezy manner of an old-fashioned film director ("Zoom in for close-up"; "Pan out"). She fixes them in the present, riffing and commenting on their environment and letting rip with the dialogue.

Each of the three converging plot lines works up to a crescendo of humiliation involving sex. Serge, who starts doing private business on his boss's secret account, comes off worse; Doro, whose lifelong relationship with Marcus has never been formalised, is brought low by a new Marks & Spencer lingerie set, bought with an eye to persuading a councillor not to develop her local allotment.

Lewycka's satires have always been laid over more serious concerns. Here, the memories of the hopelessly impractical Doncaster commune - which resembles the one in Joe Dunthorne's recent novel Wild Abandon - have left Oolie "frozen in perpetual childhood". She is desperate to move out and become independent. Oolie begins the book as an irritant, innocently foul-mouthed and frank about her sexual needs. But the depiction of her evolves into a rare and touching portrait of a handicapped adult whose parents can't bear to let go.

There are several flaws in this novel that an astute editor should have addressed. As in Lewycka's earlier book We Are All Made of Glue, the central section meanders, squandering the carefully accumulated tension. Doro is clearly the character the author cares most about but she's also the least interesting; we only get to hear Marcus's side right at the end and Clara is underdeveloped. There's some mystery about who set the fire that destroyed the Doncaster commune and although the truth about Oolie's parentage is unlikely to elude an attentive reader, the link between Serge's insider trading and Fatca's involvement in destroying Doro's allotment stretches credibility.

The various pets of the title are also an un­necessary distraction. To be first-rate, a comic novel needs the precision that P G Wodehouse brought to his plots. This zips chattily along at such a rate that its potential to be a state-of-the-nation novel isn't fulfilled.

That said, Lewycka's fiction is unlike anything else around at present. The warmth of its tone, its zest, its blend of quirky, humane comedy and intellectual seriousness make this a novel to treasure. I always looked forward to picking it up again - which is more than can be said of many current antidotes to the gloom.

Amanda Craig's "Hearts and Minds" is published by Abacus (£7.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The God Wars