THE fourth novel by award-winning Sheffield writer Marina Lewycka revolves around a clash of values between different generations.
In Various Pets Alive and Dead she introduces a middle-aged couple who were hippies and lefties in the Sixties and their son who is the ultimate capitalist making loadsamoney in the City. The twist is that he can’t bring himself to own up to his parents who blissfully believe him to be completing a Maths Phd at Cambridge University.
His sisters too have renounced their upbringing in a commune in Doncaster, one a primary teacher who craves the order and cleanliness she was denied as a child, the other who has Down’s Syndrome and yearns for independence.
Lewycka makes fun of Marcus and Doro’s earnest communal living of lentils, free love, and rotas for everything from washing up to sex but from the point of view of an insider. She herself lived in squats in her twenties.
She has no direct experience of the other themes of offspring with highly differing values and talks with evident pride of her daughter, now living in New Zealand, who did charitable work in Africa. “But I have a lot of friends whose children have gone into hedge fund management and other kinds of business which they don’t quite understand but don’t agree with it,” she says.
The book is set half in London, the world of commodities trader son Serge, and half in South Yorkshire where Marcus and Doro still live, having moved to Doncaster in the Sixties to be part of a left-wing commune. Older daughter Clara is a primary schoolteacher in the town but chooses to live in a city centre apartment in Sheffield and third child Oolie-Anna still lives at home.
“I lived in Doncaster from the age of four to 10 and when I went back I was shocked at how poor it is,” says the novelist, born in Kiel, Germany, into a family of Ukrainian refugees who inspired her best-selling debut novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. “When I tell people in London I live in Sheffield they raise their eyebrows and I say you haven’t seen Doncaster. I went back to look at the house I lived in and everywhere around it seemed so poor and desperate and it got worse after the mines were closed.”
Surprisingly she says the reminiscences about the commune was the part of the story she found hardest to write, not the world of high finance. “The City was has an insane logic,” she says. She read key books on the subject and talked to insiders.
“People I met gave me the colour and told me about the scams, the insider trading that went on through all sorts of contacts from five-a-side football to a capella groups,” she reports.
She has set it it in 2008, just before the global financial crash. “It was going to be 2007 originally but I realised this made it out of date,” she explains. “It required a huge amount of rewriting. It’s quite difficult to write when it is pinned to events in the real world and you have to dip back into the past. Once you change one thing you have to change something else.”
Serge falls in love with an alluring high-flier called Maroushka, who happens to be Ukrainian. “I didn’t want to get pigeonholed by always writing about Ukrainians but there’s a reason. People kept talking about all the new Ukrainian girls working in the City and how they have a reputation for being efficient and professional and beautiful.”
In the northern strand, the idea that one of the siblings should have Down’s Syndrome came from a previous job that Lewycka had researching people with learning difficulties. “I thought it was an interesting theme to bring into the book,” she says. “I met some wonderful people and, as you do as a writer, you store things away. You start writing a book and something pops out and you think, that will do.
“The character of Oolie-Anna was based on a particular person, well, more a combination of a boy and a girl I remember. They had incredible enthusiasm and lack of cynicism and a desire for independence their parents found difficult.”
To promote the release this month of Various Pets Alive and Dead (Figree £12.99), Lewycka has embarked on a round of radio and press interviews and readings at festivals up and down the country. Back in Sheffield she will be taking part in an In Conversation event (fully booked) on Tuesday at the Peak Lecture Theatre at Sheffield Hallam University where she was a media lecturer until retiring at the end of last year.
This is Lewycka’s fourth book but she continues to be referred to as “the author of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian”. Since her first book came out in 2005 it has sold more than 900,000 copies worldwide and is currently the 46th best-selling book of all time, according to Nielsen Bookscan.
“It’s nice to know you have given people pleasure. People have said to me, I laughed a lot, and that’s good. I also think it is quite sad, which is perhaps even truer of Various Pets.”