Having greatly enjoyed Lewycka’s previous literary efforts – Two Caravans, We Are All Made of Glue and the bestselling A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian – I was incredibly excited to read her fourth novel, the quirkily titled Various Pets Alive & Dead.
The novel begins on the 1st of September 2008. Its opening focuses upon one of the book’s main protagonists, Serge Free, who is currently working in an office on the London Stock Exchange. He is leading his parents, overprotective Doro and quiet Marcus, to believe that he is still finishing his abandoned Maths PhD at Cambridge, rather than letting them know that he actually has rather a high paid job in the capital.
Serge, along with his sisters Clara, a primary school teacher on a Doncaster estate, and Down’s Syndrome sufferer Oolie-Anna, were brought up in a commune in the south of Yorkshire ‘with a floating population of adults, children and various pets alive and dead’. The Free siblings could not be less alike if they tried. Serge is incredibly clever if a little naïve at times, Clara is strait-laced and sensible, and Oolie-Anna strives for the independence which her disability has taken away.
The characters themselves are all incredibly likeable. They each have different quirks which immediately appeal to the reader. Lewycka focuses upon the strengths and weaknesses of each of the Frees, and describes such elements as how ‘Doro has a long list of things she disapproves of, including consumerism, racism, war, Botox, Jeremy Clarkson, and trans-fatty acids’. Even those who feature merely momentarily in the novel are well-developed. Every chapter of the novel essentially focuses on a different character. Each chapter heading is followed by a witty or amusing subtitle – for example, ‘Vandalism, Pee and the Doncaster Climate’, ‘The Carrot Rocket’ and ‘The Slowness of Plants’.
One of Lewycka’s strengths lies within the narrative voices which she creates. Various Pets Alive & Dead is strong from the outset and begins with a great opening sentence: ‘The whole world is deranged, though most people haven’t noticed yet’.
The novel is told from the third person perspective, often in the present tense. This gives the reader a real sense of comradeship with the incredibly believable characters which combine to create the novel. The narrative style itself is quite relaxed but is still incredibly attentive to detail. Irony, sarcasm and amusement are included throughout.
The dialogue throughout is well crafted and incredibly amusing in places. Lewycka captures the dialects of her characters perfectly. Whilst the reader is made aware that some of the characters speak with an accent – Eastern European Maroushka Malko, a colleague of Serge’s, and the youngest Free child, Oolie-Anna – their accents are subtle and not overdone.
Lewycka’s descriptions are fresh and original. One of the best examples of this is the way in which she describes aftershave smelling of ‘aniseed and benzene lighter fuel’. Lewycka puts series of words together so cleverly that even her descriptions of the more mundane aspects of life seem fresh and exciting. The novel, particularly aspects such as the stock market which is detailed throughout, has been very well researched. It is clear, even without reading the Acknowledgements page, that Lewycka has approached experts in the more intricate details of her novel.
Various Pets Alive & Dead is filled with a barrage of surprising twists and the reader can never quite predict where the story will end up.
Various Pets Alive & Dead is an incredibly absorbing novel. Lewycka has a wonderful knack of bringing her stories, and the characters within them, to life. Unlike many contemporary authors, she brings a vibrancy to the ordinary and offers fresh perspectives. She manages to produce books which are incredibly different from one another in terms of story and setting, but which all contain her trademark humour and polished writing style. Lewycka’s stylistically bold fourth novel is contemporary literature at its very best.