Various Pets Alive and Dead by Marina Lewycka

1st Mar 2012


Marcus and Doro were part of a left-wing commune in Doncaster from the late sixties to early nineties, and their three children Serge, Clara and Oolie Anna were born in to a world of under-cooked beans, sex rotas, crocheted vests and multiple parents (of varying capabilities).

Now it’s 2008, the financial markets are just starting to crumble, and although on the surface it appears Marcus and Doro have adjusted to life outside the commune, their children are all too aware that they still seem to have one foot in the past.

Marcus and Doro believe Serge is studying for his Ph.D. at Cambridge, when in fact he is defying their every principle by secretly working as a quantitative analyst in the City.

His sister, Clara, is an over-worked primary school teacher, relied on by the whole family for her organisational skills. The youngest, Oolie Anna, has Down’s Syndrome, and is trying to convince her parents to let her move out and spread her wings.

Dysfunctional families are central to some of my all-time favourite books, and Marcus, Doro and their children are up there with the most defective. It is no mean feat to create characters that are both flawed and loveable, but Lewycka does it wonderfully here.

Serge, granted, is a bit of a tool, but what do you expect from a stock market cog? Oolie Anna is one of the most delightfully colourful characters I can think of. Her inappropriate and untimely sexual comments in a broad Yorkshire accent can’t help but raise a smile.

The narration is shared fairly equally between Serge, Clara and Doro. Tales of the commune, as you’d expect, come mostly in Doro’s chapters, and these were probably my favourite bits of the book. The optimism and gusto that drives them to create the commune in the first place is a stark contrast to the reality of filthy kitchens and sleazy comrades walking around with their junk on display.

There are also some more sinister elements from their time at the commune that begin to creep in to the present day, and these mysteries are slowly unraveled as the story progresses.

The success of this book, though, comes from the brilliantly executed juxtaposition of Serge’s experiences in the financial sector compared with Doro’s account of the commune. At its most basic level it’s capitalism vs. socialism, but it’s important to note that this book doesn’t preach, there’s no agenda here. Serge experiences the flaws and failures of both ideologies.

Serge’s story makes up probably almost half of the book, and my only criticism is that the complex financial and mathematical jargon often went over my head, and became a bit tedious. I was also marginally disappointed by the epilogue, where we finally get to hear from Marcus, and he isn’t at all how I’d imagined him to be.

But other than those minute details, this is a heart-warming read. Many have noted the ‘irony, farce and wit’ of Lewycka’s writing, and this is a prime example of it.

The children’s attempt to reiterate the commune’s values at school without even understanding the words is funny and sweet in equal measure; huge, heaped handfuls of each. The long-awaited climax of Serge’s pursuit of his colleague, Maroushka, had me giggling out loud.

In this time of political and economic unrest, if you’re looking for characters that are asking all the right questions and getting no answers, this is the book for you.

Various Pets Alive and Dead will be published by Fig Tree on 1st March and is available here as a hardback for £12.99.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended For: Reminiscent old lefties.

Other Recommended Reading: Marina Lewycka’s other great novels that are equally heart-warming and funny, or for another novel about characters who began life in a commune, try Lauren Groff’s Arcadia.

Cariad Martin