Marina Lewycka spoke at Perth Writers Festival in 2007, shortly after the publication of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, and laughed as she told the audience about all the disgruntled letters she received from readers complaining that her novel wasn’t written in Ukrainian and didn’t feature a history of tractors – budding writers take note, there is clearly a market for this kind of text.
Lewycka’s latest novel, Various Pets Alive and Dead, is also infused with her intelligence and comic sensibility. The book tells the story of a family from the perspective of three of its members – Doro (short for Dorothy), her daughter Clara and son Serge. Despite the multiple narrators, it is Serge’s story which takes centre stage. Serge has abandoned his PhD in mathematics at Cambridge to work in London for a financial institution. He spends his days producing algorithms to create risk-based derivatives for Finance and Trading Consolidation Alliance (FATCA) – a company dedicated to moving money around and creating the kind of imaginative loans that caused the global financial crisis.
The problem isn’t that Serge is doing something morally and ethically bankrupt, but that his new job flies in the face of the ideals of his aging hippy parents. Serge; his older sister, Clara; and younger sister, Oolie-Anna (who has Down Syndrome), grew up in a commune, Solidarity Hall, with his parents Doro and Marcus and several other families. For the most part, the adults of Solidarity Hall were activists, embracing the lentil and railing against the spread of capitalism in 1960s London (with the exception of the commune’s resident nudist Chris Howe, who was mostly railing against the spread of people being forced to wear pants). Serge, predictably, has been unable to tell his parents about his new career, and it is this tension that keeps the narrative engaging.
The book is an interesting meditation on idealism, whether it is Doro and Marcus’s views of life free from capitalism or the ideal of making ‘loadsamoney’, which is spouted at FATCA. The insights into the financial sector are chilling —and they resonate because Lewycka has obviously done her homework. The novel takes place in 2008, taking us through the GFC, and reminds us that financial institutions like FATCA learnt a very different lesson from the rest of us. Chief Ken, the CEO of FATCA, views the government bailout as an ‘unlimited upside’ — ‘everything you win, you keep. And every time you lose, a kind-hearted donkey called Joe Public comes along with a sack of gold to pay off your debt.’
The hippy idealism of Doro and Marcus are given short shrift and misunderstood by everyone, particularly Clara and Serge. As a child, Clara explained the lessons of Solidarity Hall to her class: ‘the family’s a pastry ark construction to fascinate the sobbing nation of women in Domestos fear’. As adults, both Serge and Clara long to be free of their past at Solidarity Hall, but both find it difficult to shake off the lessons they learned in the commune, despite the empty rhetoric of some of Doro and Marcus’ pronouncements.
In Various Pets Alive and Dead, Clara’s narrative is not given the same attention as Serge and Doro’s – this is a relatively minor criticism, but it does lead to some rather hasty sewing up of a few loose threads. Ultimately, the novel draws the reader into its world and makes them want to stay there a little bit longer. Ultimately, this novel reminds us that having ideals, just like having pets, is fine and good in theory, but we often underestimate just how much damage these cuddly little concepts can do.
Natalie Kon-yu is a Melbourne-based academic and writer, and her review ‘Not B-List Exactly, But A–: Reading Siri Hustvedt and Lionel Shriver’ appeared in Kill Your Darlings No. 8.