Two sets of young married couples in South London reaching that all or nothing point…….. With John Legend for theme music
The breakdown of an apparently functional suburban home can be an eye opener when written correctly. The secret blaming of spouses for lost youth and forgotten ambition. The quiet knocks of impending middle age. The conceding that “marriage is about the children” once the romance that spawned them becomes irrelevant. Cynical. So cynical. I don’t know what to blame for my own personal interest- Desperate Housewives?
The story starts with a party in leafy Croydon, celebrating the Obama inauguration of 2008. We are introduced to the book’s characters amid nostalgic bounces of Jay Z and Kris Kross (Jump!). Melissa’s once fiercely independent free spirit is gradually being quelled by childcare and marital obligations- only without actual marriage. Her partner Michael is seemingly fine with a decade long engagement. A lulled sex life, however, he is not fine with but the hope of man is great. He will never stop trying; it’s kind of funny until infidelity becomes an option.
Their friends Stephanie (supermum) and Damien have moved out to Surrey to enjoy fresh air and ‘safety’ for their two kids. Fresh air can’t fix everything though. The death of Damien’s father accentuates his questions on his ability to identify with his more affluent, white wife and his displacement from Brixton’s vibrancy. Not to mention that book he wanted to write. We all want to write a book.
John Legend’s Get Lifted album is almost a spirit force in this story
It provides a backdrop to the life cycle of relationships. Ordinary People’s lyrics are entirely relevant- This ain’t the honeymoon…passed the infatuation stage and true to the story’s arc: At times we get sick of love/ seems like we argue everyday. Other tracks on Get Lifted a look in too- exploring the growth of a relationship from ‘She Don’t Have To Know’ to ‘I Can Change’ and the calm of ‘Refuge’. Someone should tell Legend this book exists, Evans obviously loves the album.
Ordinary People’s charm is in Evans’ ability to use familiarity to quietly relate how domestic life and fading love can trigger existential anxiety. The detail she goes into on arguments about sheets and children’s plays makes you a part of the mundanity- you can understand the need for escape. You can understand the need to run away to a time before. It’s very honest in it’s lack of loud drama. There is no clash of a main event but a series of quiet, extremely destructive ‘happenings’, which mount until the couples become almost unrecognizable in their contempt. This could easily be the story of the divorcee who tells you he doesn’t know what happened, “we just grew apart”. In that sense, Ordinary People reminded me of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, there are a few similarities (interestingly, Evans mentions Corrections in the book- Franzen could be an influence?)
The characters belong to a demographic that popular literature has almost completely forgotten- middle class black thirtysomethings. It’s brilliant to read a modern, relatable portrait on modern black families in London. Black identity plays a role, its impossible for it not to- it informs the experience of the characters. Evans mentioned in a Guardian interview that race does inform her writing but she doesn’t want to hide her characters behind that. This story displays that perfectly while focusing on universal life themes like identity crises, domestic mendacity, marriage and mid life.
Interestingly, the style and pace of character dialogue doesn’t deviate much from the prose of her narrative and descriptions. Not sure if that was intentional- gives the effect of one person telling the whole story – or that some aspect of Diana’s personality is present in all the characters – or that deep down, they (we?) are all very similar? It’s late and I’m overthinking shit.
The characters belong to a demographic that popular literature has almost completely forgotten- middle class black thirtysomethings
Evans writes beautifully, it’s almost lyrical, definitely song inspired. There are many times when I found myself re reading paragraphs. Perhaps my favourite thing about Ordinary People is how well Evans incorporates my local area. The anatomy of South London is so deeply embedded in this book that most of the time, I knew exactly where Michael, Mellissa and co were. London is almost one of the characters- Crystal Palace burning as a metaphor for a dying relationship. Michael remembers 7/7 as he gets on the tube. Even 176 bus route features. Somehow Evans visits a lot of London’s social issues in the story’s background- violent crime, gentrification, not enough tube in South London, race, mental health in Black men.
Ordinary People does go on for too long though- maybe 30-50 pages too long? The book’s storyline lends itself to the familiarity of everyday life so it’s naturally slow paced. At times, it did feel like Michael and Melissa’s emotions were just being dragged through paragraphs. Other times the detail of house redecorations, building set ups, background songs and baby play group wars stretched a bit. Although I can relate to that baby group hilarity now. Could have been deliberate.