WE ARE ALL MADE OF GLUE Marina Lewycka Fig Tree, £18.99 Review: FORDYCE MAXWELL
MARINA Lewycka does not do catchy titles. Her first novel was A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian. In spite of occasionally being listed under 'Agriculture' when it was published in 2005, it became a bestseller, won awards and has now appeared in 29 languages.
Her second was Two Caravans. Her third is We Are All Made Of Glue. It's easy to imagine publicists and marketing staff clutching their heads and pleading: "Let's get this straight. It's about a woman who writes for a magazine called 'Adhesives In The Modern World' whose marriage is breaking up and whose son is turning to Jesus sites on the internet and worrying about Armageddon, and she meets a smelly old woman who lives in a stinky house in London with stinkier cats?
"And it all flows from that? It makes you feel as if you know these people – without wanting to get too close to some – and hope things turn out well for them, even the head-up-his-bum husband? And it's compulsive reading that at times makes you laugh out loud?
"And it makes you realise that suffering themselves doesn't necessarily make anyone compassionate? But there's some good, funny sex in it as well? And a lot about superglue and polymerisation and white UPVC windows? Yeah, right. Jocasta, be a darling and take this one. I'll look after the Dan Brown."
The reader should stick with Lewycka. She has an almost conversational style, tells a good story that only once or twice threatens to topple into burlesque, and creates believable characters.
Anything Alan Bennett did with his from-life descriptions of the old lady in a van in his drive, Lewycka does with Naomi Shapiro, an 81-year-old Jewish lady with a mysterious past as she teeters on high heels looking for past their sell-by date bargains in supermarkets, recovering clothes from rubbish skips, lashing on lipstick – not all on her teeth – and fluttering her eyelids at estate agents and hapless handymen as the story of her house unfolds.
Lewycka is excellent on families. Her narrator, Georgie Sinclair, is from Leeds coal mining stock, her husband Rip from a county-set background. Her mother rivals Naomi Shapiro in looking for bargains, her father is solid NUM.
Both wake in the middle of the night to drink tea and worry in low voices about their daughter when, after Rip walks out, she spends Christmas with them alone: "We clinked our glasses together, Mum's filled with the last of the Country Manor, Dad's and mine with Old Peculier. The mystery of the bread sauce was solved when Dad poured it over the Christmas pudding."
Her son Ben and daughter Stella spent Christmas with their father at his wealthy parents': "Stella accepted everything with effusive thanks… wheedled the receipts out of the donors and took the items back to exchange for the things she really wanted. Ben accepted everything guiltily and donated the unwanted gifts to the Animal Sanctuary."
Lewycka is also convincing and funny – a combination that few writers attempt without being risible – on sex. When she meets Mark Diabello, super-smooth estate agent – "Our job is to match the dream" – his voice "spoke directly to my hormones, bypassing my brain completely".
In bed, "He went through all the stages like someone working through a car service manual, and I surrendered with all the abandon of a Ford Fiesta having its eighty-thousand-mile service."
Then there's "The Splattered Heart" romantic novel Georgie is working on, scribbling away (failed attempts in brackets) in an exercise book to get back at Rip and her in-laws: "As the Sinster family (were was) were sitting down… surrounded by deer's antlers and other dead things they heard the (plangent pungent poignant) melodious (twanging tinkling twinkling oh sod this) sound of a mandolin… Mrs Sinster threw him a few coins and said 'Oh, Mr Mandolin Player, please come again, I am fascinated by your (large mandolin) charming folk culture."
Marina Lewycka, born in a refugee camp in Germany, brought up and still living and lecturing in Sheffield, was 58 when her first novel was published after several factual books on elderly care. She's had a life worth living and it shines through every book she writes – an adult writing for grown-ups.