Author: Marina Lewycka
If you are looking for an easy breezy end of summer read then this isn’t it! Various Pets Alive & Dead is not a chill out on the beach or by the pool relaxing lazy afternoon read. This isn’t at all a bad thing but you need to be prepared that this is a book that requires you to have your wits about you.
Right from the beginning I found myself unable to decide how I felt about this book, I couldn’t work out if I liked, disliked it or just couldn’t get my head around it but the further I waded in the more it ceased to matter because regardless of how I felt I knew I needed to stick it out and see what happened.
The cover is certainly attention grabbing with a variety of insects and animals interwoven with the lettering and ensuring that it’s something you absolutely have to stop and study, if only to work out what it says. It stands out from the pretty pictures, or block colours so it is going to capture your attention.
What started as quite a feat of concentration to engage with this book evolved into a must see what happens with about 100 pages to go; was there going to be the huge crashing of characters I was beginning to expect? Were there going to be answers to all of the questions being ever more frequently raised? And most importantly, is he going to get the girl in the end?
Marina Lewycka has written this from a third person point of view focussing on three different protagonists; Serge, Clara and Doro. These three characters are closely related, Doro is Serge and Clara’s mother, but that doesn’t mean they are alike – it’s quite the opposite actually.
Doro and partner Marcus helped found a left-wing commune in the 60’s that was all about sharing – everything. It was about the strong helping the weaker. The motto was ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.’ Everything was shared from the wages brought in to the clothes and monogamy was scoffed at. The children were co-parented by all of the adults.
Clara was the first baby of the commune, a perfect test subject for all of their experimental parenting plans. She was the oldest child so took responsibility for the younger ones and has grown up to teach primary school and try to help elevate these children higher than they might otherwise aspire to with their backgrounds.
Serge is a mathematical whizzkid who just gets the formulas and patterns and has gone into finance; helping to increase the divide between the classes – against all his parents have ever tried to teach him.
A large part of the novel is all about contrast, the beginning these three characters have together at Solidarity Hall has left them all so very different and they’ve moved on in these very different directions.
Alongside the events taking place in the present (2008) in the lives of Serge, Clara and Doro are the reminiscences and walks down memory lane that they take to fill us in on all of the back story that helps us understand the present.
It’s almost a chapter for chapter split that rotates between the three and fills us in on what’s happening in their lives and what memories it’s dredging up so the stories are running parallel but you’re still left juggling information to get it to go together properly.
The contrasts abound in the setting as well. Clara’s school is in a poor district with disadvantaged kids. Doro is still going on about recycling, protecting resources and looking out for each other, equality for the classes. Then there’s Serge, working in the City surrounded by expensive suits, more expensive cars and £13,000 restaurant bills.
Alongside the contrasts are the similarities, Lewycka shows us that there is not much separating the classes and it wouldn’t take much to turn that around. Regardless of how far you’ve come there’s only so far that you can get away from where you came from. It is a clear picture of everything being connected.
Clara’s school children speak very much in the local dialect which definitely took some concentration to translate. The only thing I had more trouble getting my head around was all the financial jargon flying around Serge’s workplace – I really don’t get the way the stock market works.
Put it all together and you have a uniquely amusing tale of a family’s life with it’s trials, tribulations and triumphs.