As Tolstoy said, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and dysfunctional family relationships have been providing novelists with material since story-telling began. It’s a relief to escape into these novels – there’s a strange comfort in reading about the problems of fictional families when I’m despairing of the dysfunctional reality of my own. Which is a roundabout way of saying I was quite looking forward to Lewycka’s latest novel. Various Pets Alive & Dead explores the unique unhappiness of the Free family as they move on after years in a left-wing commune and settle into more conventional lives. The bulk of the story centres on Serge, the son, who can’t admit to his hippy parents that he’s given up doing a PHD at Cambridge for a job earning ninety grand as a banker. But the financial world is heading toward meltdown, and his family are growing more and more suspicious. As Serge’s professional and personal deceits threaten to collapse, his mother and sisters are struggling with their own issues. Clara’s tired of her role as the responsible, conscientious child. Oolie Anna, who has Downs Syndrome, is frustrated that her mum won’t let her move out, find a boyfriend, or even have sugar in her tea. Doro’s facing an empty nest and an aging body. The idealistic passions of her youth have faded along with her looks, and these days she’s more enthusiastic about saving her allotment than fighting for a communist revolution. Across this tapestry of family ties, lies, love and resentment, fall shadows of their commune past. Mysterious references to hamster deaths, rabbit massacres and malicious fires hint that the problems of the past are as unresolved as the disputes of the present.
Fans of Lewycka’s trademark suburban comedy won’t be disappointed, and much of the writing is as witty and sharp as ever. Most notably, she hasn’t lost her skill of teasing out strands of the ridiculous in everyday life, so banal events become amusing farces. One of the most entertaining scenes involves Serge’s tortured attempt to confess his anti-socialist career choice to Doro, who is completely distracted because she’s angrily trying to save the public pavement from the anti-social excretions of a passing poodle.
But Lewycka’s not content to rest on her comedic talents, and ventures out of her comfort zone to explore the recent economic crisis. She has clearly done her research into the world of banking, and her portrayal of Serge’s working environment is convincingly perplexing to the general reader. It’s also refreshing to see the banking crisis portrayed from an insider’s perspective, and a morally ambiguous insider at that. Serge’s viewpoint is realistically murky. He’s experienced enough of working class Doncaster to have his conscience pricked by the extravagant waste of his colleagues, but he has also experienced enough poverty himself to relish the joys of expensive suits and bachelor pads.
Unfortunately, the novel has one significant flaw. The technique of interweaving family subplots, which worked so well in Lewycka’s other novels, doesn’t succeed here. The connections between the individual storylines feel forced, and there’s not enough room for Clara and Doro to develop. As a result, they come across as flat, or worse, thoroughly unconvincing. For example, Doro is supposed to be a lovable eccentric. But it feels like Lewycka ran out of space to show us any loveable side to the character, and her attempts at eccentricity are unimaginative. Doro’s characterisation is mostly based on the stock character of the dotty post-menopausal woman, and this sits oddly with what we’re told of her radical past. Would a left-wing free-love feminist really keep badgering her daughter to settle down? Would she really be daft enough to keep swallowing her son’s lies? In fact, one of the strongest aspects of Lewycka’s novels, her eccentric but believable characters, is sadly missing here. Although there are the odd gems – such as the Hamlet-quoting caretaker and the wickedly innocent vamp Maroushka – they play bit parts to much duller creations.
Any Cop?: All in all, this is an enjoyable read with a plot that nips along quite nicely, and plenty of affectionately mocking tableaus of British culture for the reader to stop and enjoy along the way. But the combination of social commentary and family dynamics just didn’t rub along nicely together. I usually enjoy Lewycka’s trademark use of the dysfunctional family, but in this case I think she should have abandoned that particular stylistic comfort blanket. She could have written a stronger novel, and still made use of her comedy and characterisation skills, if she’d focussed purely on Serge’s dysfunctional workplace.