Book club: Various Pets Alive and Dead

Hannah Langworth reads a quirky novel that takes a close look at the finance world and its place in today's Britain

Various Pets Alive and Dead

By Marina Lewycka

Fig Tree, 2012

Ukrainian-born but now Sheffield-based novelist Marina Lewycka has carved a literary niche for herself penning novels which combine funny and affectionate portraits of modern British life with careful, and sometimes biting, analysis of social issues. Her first, and most acclaimed, novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian tackled dementia, racism and class, while her second, Two Caravans,*and third, We Are All Made of Glue*, took on immigration and people trafficking, and social care and marital conflict respectively. Each features a cast of memorable and often eccentric characters, including a good sprinkling of eastern Europeans, and, unlikely as it may sound, richly comic incidents and happy endings, for some of her characters at least.

Lewycka's latest work is as quirkily titled as her others and is largely constructed according to the same successful formula. This time she tackles learning disabilities, civic politics and the financial crisis. The plot centres around Marcus and Doro, refugees from a left-wing commune founded in the freewheeling 1960s, and their three adult children: mathematician turned City quantitative analyst Serge, primary school teacher Clara, and Oolie Anna (named to reflect Lenin's real name, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov), who works in a bakery.

The plots flits between the perspective of Doro, Serge and Clara, and backwards and forwards in history, taking us to locations as diverse as Doncaster at the time of the miners' strikes, the modern-day City of London and a fantasy Brazilian beach hut. One of its main strands is the increasing complexity of Serge's life as he tries to hide his job from his parents (they still think he's doing a PhD in Cambridge), operate a not strictly above board trading strategy, and pursue his lovely but apparently unobtainable colleague Maroushka. Meanwhile, Clara battles it out at a difficult school, while Doro tends her allotment, musing about her past and what lies ahead for Oolie, who has Down's Syndrome.

Lewycka's ability to ask searching and detailed questions about often ignored aspects of modern Britain while avoiding didacticism is striking. What public processes swing into place when an elderly person apparently can't cope by themselves? What chains of events have brought Chinese, Malawian or Moldovan immigrants to the UK? These are typical of the kind of enquiries she's made in the past, and her nuanced examination here of how the political history of the north of England affects its present and the intricacies of social work feel like familiar territory for her, and she treads this ground again with ease.

She also, however, enters an environment not found in her previous novels - an investment bank in the Square Mile, and largely succeeds here too as she tries to show what makes these mysterious machines tick. These sections get the careful, well-researched treatment that characterises all of her work - there's much talk of "algorithm-based trading strategies", "AIM", and traders' drinking rituals and locations. For a social satirist like Lewycka, the City of London in the run-up to the 2008 crisis provides rich pickings which she doesn't fail to exploit. However, she's also merciless with her 1960s commune, cataloguing its vegetarian casseroles, political conflicts and "puke-green decor" with equal glee.

The strength of the novel's character portraits are undoubtedly what allows Lewycka to explore her serious themes - here the massive shifts in British society since the second world war which allowed the financial crisis to happen - with such a light touch. She uses her diverse range of dramatis personae effectively to chart times and places, but they're usually so well-rounded that they never feel like emblems - Oolie with her "uninhibited sexuality" and Clara's indefatigable pupil Jason stand out in particular. And her Dickensian knack for weaving a large and diverse cast together in an intricate and tight plot makes the novel feel both socially universal and intimate. There's also plenty of the beautifully done comic set pieces here that readers of Lewycka's other novels will expect - a boating accident, a embarrassing encounter down at the allotment, a seduction interrupted by the frustrating loss of a button.

In the end, however, the novel is neither as sharply analytical nor as funny as Lewycka's previous works, and displays little of the lyricism that was occasionally used very well in them to describe the beauty of a pastoral scene or the joy of falling in love. And, though many of the characters are well-drawn, some of them seem occasionally dangerously close to caricature. In particular, Serge's object of desire, Maroushka, is a bit too much of a one-dimensional frosty eastern European temptress, which is particularly disappointing considering how well Lewycka has portrayed characters from this part of the world in previous works. Admittedly, we do see Maroushka largely through Serge's lust-addled eyes, and she does surprise both him and the reader to a certain extent at the end of the book.

And finally, where do the pets come in? Hamsters scuttle around the book, in Clara's classroom and as a surrogate child for Oolie as she begins to form a new family of her own. Dogs occasionally pop up. But it's rabbits that are probably the novel's most persistent zoological motif. They're used by Serge in his explanation of the Fibonacci sequence, their breeding habits representing the mathematical alchemy used by his bank - and its potential runaway dangers. Earlier, they also appear as childhood pets for the commune children, as cute as their parents' political principles and just as treasured by the younger generation, yet also as dangerously vulnerable in life's rough and tumble. And Lewycka herself shows again in Pets that she's able to hop adroitly around some of modern Britain's difficult corners with appealing comic charm.