Some are livelier than others...

Some are livelier than others…

“The whole world is deranged, though most people haven’t noticed yet.”

A friend of mine, the editor, handed over this book to me at Christmas. “I love this author, but I’ve not read this one of her books yet. Her other stuff was great, though.” I trust this friend instinctively, and I owe her a lot, so I felt a good deal of pressure to enjoy this one. It was like a litmus test of some sort. However, there was nothing to worry about, my trust was placed entirely correctly, and I really enjoyed the book.

I’ve heard of Lewycka – most people are aware of her unusually titled novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian if nothing else – but I’d never even contemplated reading her. The reviews on the back of the book said she was funny, which is never something I’d gathered from what I’d previously seen or heard (yeah, yeah, never judge a book by it’s cover, I know). Still, it wasn’t far wrong. While not laugh out loud funny, it’s dry and witty with some wonderfully surreal situations.

This is the story of an unconventional family. Doro and Marcus met during a protest in the 70s, and soon found themselves living with a group of other people in a commune, fighting for free love, feminism and the collapse of capitalism. They managed to raise three children out of it, and while they’ve turned out well, they’ve turned their backs on many of their hippie parents ideals. The eldest, Clara, is now a teacher who is happy to conform to normal society, just happy to have a bathroom she doesn’t have to share and her own clothes. Middle-child Serge has dropped out of Cambridge and is now earning megabucks in the City as a banker, something which he has neglected to tell his parents, who are sure to be ashamed. And then there’s Oolie-Anna, the youngest, who has Down’s Syndrome and is desperate to move out on her own and find some independence, but Doro is reluctant to cut the apron strings.

Set during the global economic collapse of 2008, the family find themselves brushing up against all sorts of people and ideas from their past. It doesn’t help that Doro and Marcus have now decided, in their sixties, that they should get married. This opens up more cans of worms as Oolie seeks her freedom, Serge seeks his utopian hideaway and Clara seeks an escaped hamster.

The credit crunch was an interesting time and by now many of the earlier details of it have faded into history, despite it only being six years ago. The world hasn’t recovered, and doesn’t seem set to for many years yet, but it is great to see the effects of it from different points of view. The book has three narrators – Clara, Serge and Doro – all of whom have their secrets from the time in the commune and those that have been born more recently, and you wish them all a happy ending. I think my favourite of the three is Serge, despite the reputation that bankers have. He likes money, there’s no denying it, but the guilt about keeping his job secret from his parents weighs heavily, and he’s also too busy obsessing over Ukrainian co-worker Maroushka with whom he is probably in love with. Clara is a decent sort, who loves her family and teaches for the joy of the job, not just for the paycheck. And Doro is simply what happens when those from the free-loving seventies with their hippie ideals realise that their dreams of changing the world were never going to come to fruition.

Even the cast of secondary characters, which is far from small, shows up some wonderful figures, like Bruno (Italian, very sexy, and prone to wearing very tiny underpants) and Mr Philpott (Shakespeare and Wittgenstein quoting caretaker of Clara’s school). The unusual title refers to the many pets kept at the commune by the children, and also, to me at least, seems to refer to the pet ideas that everyone has, how some of them linger on and never leave you, but others die and fall by the wayside as you get older and realise that lentils and sex rotas won’t save the world.

A captivating, charming and very real novel, and well worth a read.