Various Pets Alive And Dead
Various Pets Alive And Dead is the story of Serge and Clara, both former commune kids whose parents were activists in their younger days. Each has grown up to rebel or conform in their own way, Clara has become an ordinary member of society, Serge has gone in the polar opposite direction and become a stock broker. Their younger sister Ulyana who has Downs Syndrome still lives at home; and for reasons none can explain their long cohabiting parents are suddenly desperate to reunite the old gang, and formally marry.
Having already read A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian and found it deeply unfunny despite its marketing as a comic novel, I doubt I would ever have voluntarily read Various Pets Alive And Dead which was a book club choice. This was also marketed as a comic novel, HILARIOUS, claims the front cover. I didn't laugh once.
The entire Serge story is disengaging and beyond annoying, attempting to declare its own relevancy by having Northern Rock and Woolworths collapsing about him. This entire storyline made my eyes glaze over and I really couldn't have cared less. My entire reading group concurred that the novel would have been vastly improved without Serge. At one point he wanders into the lair of a dominatrix, awkwardly encounters a colleague, and wanders back out again. It hangs in mid air with a question mark as to why this scene exists, as do much of the other events.
Of his sisters Clara's storyline reminded me entirely of A Casual Vacancy (not a compliment) as she inhabits a cliche of a downtrodden and mousy primary school teacher attempting to do good on an estate. All the working class people are of course, a Daily Mail stereotype of grubby underfed chavs who would steal your purse as soon as look at you.
Their sister who has Downs is the most embarrassingly written of the lot, there is nothing to her character whatsoever other than an uninhibited and inappropriately expressed desire for sex, with no other personality to speak of else. Did research into Downs basically amount to a bit of googling here?
There are two shoutouts for equality here though, for one it's nice to have a character with a disability in a novel, doesn't happen often, and for two a cardboard cutout with no depth she may well be but at least the same can be said of every other character in the novel. She hasn't received any lesser treatment, all are two dimensional at best.
A further problem exists in that there really is no plot to speak of making this a character led piece with rubbish characters. Throughout the book I kept thinking that the real story in this book belonged to the prime of the commune and perhaps particularly to the fire that destroyed it, and that a novel which had laid its focus there would have been a better one. Surely the idea that children reject the values of their parents is an obvious and worn one?
Some people said that perhaps books about communes had been overdone but I couldn't think of any.
For me, there was a total disengagement, I was not at any point involved with this novel. It was literally just words on a page that I turned. I certainly did not enter its world or feel anything except irritation at any point.
In fact, personally, the novel had just two high points, my home town got name-checked and you never see it in literature and also an obscure pub in London that I happen to have been in, the road its on, and the cemetery opposite. When those are your take away highlights from a novel that is nearly 400 pages long, you've got a problem.
The denouement is terrible, one of those summations of what happened to everyone which I happen to loathe, there's a "revelation" in there which has no impact because you don't care, and you realise that the whole pretext of "the plot" came to naught. Outcomes for other characters seem hastily concocted as though a deadline approached. Some further, cliched, distasteful, remarks are made about the sex life of our Downs Syndrome character.
Dismal. I've read this, now you don't have to. Avoid.