Various Pets Alive and Dead: Marina Lewycka

Review by Joannah Caborn
Published by Penguin, 2012

Marina Lewycka, Various Pets Alive and Dead. Penguin, 2012.

One of the best things about this book are the dedications. The first one:

“To quietly flowing Don”.

The second is a Gogol quote, from Dead Souls (1842):

“We live in new times – the age of the hero is past – now is the time of the non-virtuous man.”

Unfortunately, it goes downhill from there.

Not that the humour from Lewycka’s best-seller A History of Tractors in Ukrainian is missing from this one – there are a couple of fantastic set pieces, perfectly executed – but it does get a bit lost in the slightly rambling collection of plots and subplots. And to think that, according to the Acknowledgements, the printed text is a radically pruned version of the original.

Most of all though, it’s the characterization that just doesn’t quite carry the humour. With a main character who is supposed to be so intelligent but can’t see some of the really, but really daft things he does are just such a bad idea; the guy who has the nouse of a love-lorn teenager when it comes to affairs of the heart and who doesn’t dare tell his mum about his new job is supposed to have the balls to face down his psychopathic boss – it just doesn’t hang together.

The other characters might be more consistently drawn, but they don’t develop much beyond the sound-bite style profile on the back cover.

It’s a shame really because the satire and social comment (for example on hippy communes in the 70s and bankers out of control now) could be both funny and interesting to read. Had the book bit rather shorter, then the reduced characterization would have fitted a more minimalist, satirical style.

Can I go on a bit about the ending as well? Actually, I have just one comment: yuck – I’ve not seen such neat pairing off since Noah’s Ark. And at the same time, there’s one strand of the story that there have been tantalizing hints about all through the book that Lewycka chooses not to resolve – as if she needed to balance the Hollywood cliché-ing with at least one stab at a post-modernist stance. Please.

So a bit of a rant this one – just following Imran’s great example, even if this is not half as elegantly written. Nice one Imran!

Buy from UK

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