Jul 17, 2012

Bankers, Hippies and Hamsters

I like Marina Lewycka and really enjoyed her first novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian as well as We Are All Made of Glue (she also wrote Two Caravans). So I'm thrilled Marina is coming to speak at our Festival. The title of her talk is ‘Bankers, Hippies and Hamsters’ which refers to her latest book, Various Pets Alive and Dead.

Various Pets Alive and Dead starts in September 2008, just before the banking crisis rocked the world. Serge works at Finance and Trading Consolidated Allicance (FATCA) earning £90K a year, yet his parents believe he's finishing his PhD at Cambridge. Serge knows they wouldn’t approve of his lifestyle: Doro and Marcus grew up with a different set of values – they weren’t just slightly left-wing, they lived in a commune. The novel switches between the trading floors of London and Doncaster, where Serge’s sister Clara is a teacher (although she commutes from the more cosmopolitan Sheffield) and Doro and Marcus live with Oolie-Anna, who has Down’s Syndrome. We also have flashbacks to life in the commune and see how their unconventional upbringing has led Serge and Clara to seek a different lifestyle for themselves.

At times, reading a Marina Lewycka novel is like watching an episode of ‘Fawlty Towers’: what starts as a misunderstanding rapidly leads to acute embarrassment and descends into farce. For me, Marina’s real strength is in her characterisation. Human nature is beautifully observed and her main characters are always ‘warts and all’ yet drawn with warmth and humour. Even when they are doing wrong we’re rooting for them: after Doro buys sexy underwear, contemplating an affair, we sympathise when she feels ridiculous and vulnerable. When Serge indulges in illicit trading we want him to get away with it, although ultimately it’s proved that, despite the bankers’ defence, there is no such thing as a ‘victimless crime’.

Matriarch Doro is perhaps the most fully developed character, and Marina writes with feeling about the issues facing women as they age. Doro’s values have changed over time and we see that, despite the distance between the generations, where there is love there is always the hope of reconciliation. The ‘various pets’ of the title – largely rabbits and school hamsters - provide a thread throughout the book which will resonate with anyone who has had pets. As Clara observes, people ‘think caring for pets will teach children kindness and responsibility, but she knows that what you really learn is the precariousness of life, the inevitability of death.’

I’d strongly recommend this book, as well as Marina’s talks (Friday 14th September 12.00-13.00 at Barclays Hub and Sunday 16th September 14.00-15.00 at the OGH). Marina will also be hosting a workshop on Saturday 15th 10.00-12.30 at Les Cotils, on ‘Finding your Voice as a Writer’.

My copy of the book has a GLF ‘Read Me, Share Me’ sticker and I’d love to pass it on. If you’d like to read it and pass it on too, please send me a message on the GLF Facebook page.