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Review: Fiction: Various Pets Alive & Dead by Marina Lewycka

Marina Lewycka shot to literary fame in 2005 with her debut novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. Despite its unwieldy title it sold a million copies in the UK and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Orange Prize.

Lewycka's following two novels, Two Caravans and We Are All Made Of Glue, also included themes of Eastern Europe.

Lewycka was born in Germany in a refugee camp just after the war, and moved to England with her parents as a baby. Her books seem to take much inspiration from her own life and family history (she discovered her long-lost family in the Ukraine just after she wrote her debut novel).

Her latest book, Various Pets Alive and Dead, tells the story of Doro and Marcus, two ageing hippies in the UK whose children are now grown. Oolie-Ana is their adopted Down syndrome daughter who wants to move out and exert her independence. Doro doesn't want her to, for various reasons, including fear of an empty nest.

Meanwhile, Doro and Marcus's other two children, Serge and Clara, are rebelling against their parents' beliefs as best they can-- by conforming.

Serge is pretending to write his PhD in Cambridge when actually he is putting his maths genius to work as an analyst in the City, while Clara works as a teacher.

Themes of communism are still here, in their own way, in the form of a 1970s commune, which sits nicely alongside the individualist Serge's pursuit of the markets for his own gains.

Lewycka quite subtly analyses how selfish behaviour impacts on our fellows in a kind of butterfly effect, from the smallest transgression of an irresponsible dog-owner allowing it to poop on the street to the reckless behaviour of masters of the universe triggering the financial crisis.

This crisis is at the heart of the book and I found my appetite for reading a caper on the collapse of the economy has declined as sharply as a stock in freefall.

The tone just feels too light for its subject matter. The characters never feel real, either. In fact, of all the characters (and the story is told from several perspectives) Doro and Marcus were the only ones I really believed in.

There are, however, moments when Lewycka's emotional insight can knock you sideways, like when Doro realises what she misses is not, in fact, her old garden but the prime of her own life.

That is an incredibly affecting moment filled with pathos but for the most part, this novel is just a charming distraction.

Edel Coffey

Indo Review