Diana Evans’ third novel is bookended by a party to celebrate Obama’s election as the first black president of the USA, and by the death of Michael Jackson. Against this slice of history two relationships in London start to fall apart. The ordinary people of the title are middle class couples facing the strains of ordinary domesticity, possible extra-marital affairs and divorce, the loss of parents and jobs. They’re also the ‘ordinary people’ of John Legend’s lyrics:
We’re just ordinary people
We don’t know which way to go
‘Cause we’re ordinary people
Maybe we should take it slow
At the beginning we meet Melissa and Michael who live in a lop-sided house in South London, not far from Crystal Palace (a recurring theme throughout the novel). They’re seen at the party both ‘on the far side of youth’ but still a glamorous couple. Adult life has ‘revealed itself, wearing a limp, grey dressing gown’ but with their children away for the night, Michael at least feels ‘a pressing obligation… to deliriously copulate’. But nothing goes to plan and, after the party, back in their house in the ironically-named Paradise Row, domestic needs take over: Melissa finds a mouse, a wardrobe rail collapses and the sex is no good. Michael compares himself to the singer in ‘Ordinary People’ Passed the infatuation phase /Right in the thick of love. But everything is going wrong and he can’t control it.
Melissa is struggling with the joint pressures of crushing domesticity, and the loss of her career: where she was an ‘I’ rather than a ‘we’. Descriptions of the dragging details of being at home with small children and trying to work freelance, are both hilarious and poignant. For Melissa there are hints (from her Nigerian mother) of the supernatural, of ‘night things’ – ‘beings who walk in the night hours, not quite human, who watch us.’ Symbolic of what is wrong in their relationship. There is a recurring image of the 1851 Great Exhibition and how the Crystal Palace was moved south of the river, and eventually burned down.
Then there’s Damian (Michael’s university friend) who lives with Stephanie in leafy Surrey. He’s reassured by ‘her aptitude for contentment’ so has been persuaded to move away from London to Dorking because she’s worried about inner city violence affecting the children. She loves their house with its ‘neatness and thick upstairs carpets and old wooden surfaces’. Damien is struggling with the long commute, the recent death of his father and a sense that he’s not doing anything important with his life. His father, a political activist, campaigned constantly against racial inequality, but ended up a lonely, disappointed man. Damien misses London: ‘the stern beauty of church women on Sunday mornings, the West End, the art in the air, the music in the air, the sense of possibility’. He has a running question in his mind: How long will you go on living your life as if you were balancing on a ribbon? Stuck at the bottom of a drawer he has an unfinished novel.
From here everything gradually unravels for both couples. But what makes this novel stand out is that although the main characters are black or mixed race, this isn’t the focus of the book. Race is addressed in Stephanie’s fears that London isn’t a place to bring up children, and in Damien’s father’s fight against racist attitudes, but this is a novel about relationships, not race. And in this it is quietly revolutionary. And also wonderfully funny. Ordinary People is a finely-nuanced novel of contemporary relationships that is both compelling and vital.
Ordinary People is published on 5th April.