Book review: No Ordinary People, by Diana Evans

The novel is more than an examination of the agony of a couple trapped in a dysfunctional relationship, of people seeking a way back to themselves...

We’re just ordinary people
We don’t know which way to go

American songwriter John Legend’s 2004 composition provides the title as well as the leitmotif in Ordinary People, the third novel by Diana Evans, award-winning British author who is half-Nigerian. The tale opens at a party held to celebrate the election victory of Barack Obama. Londoners Michael and Melissa, or M&M, as their friends call them, are a black couple in their late 30s who have been together — but not married — for 13 years of a sweet and solid chocolate-like romance.

“They were on the far side of youth, at a moment in their lives when the gradual descent into age was beginning to appear, the quickening of time, the mounting of years. They were insisting on their youth. They were carrying it with both their hands.”

The birth of a second child prompts the pair to shift to a larger house in Crystal Palace so that “dreaming could have a floor of its own and breakfast and new days could be descended into.” The move south presages the downward drift of their relationship.

For the rest of the novel, Evans draws a precise portrait of a relationship gone sour, a growing disenchantment seen in the daily bickering over petty issues, a hint of postpartum depression in Melissa – who misses the freedom of her earlier life as a fashion journalist – and a dwindling sex life, which sets off an existential panic in Michael.

However, the novel is more than an examination of the agony of a couple trapped in a dysfunctional relationship, of people seeking a way back to themselves or a way forward. It enlarges its scope by exploring multicultural relationships and what it means to be coloured in a society that is no longer black and white, but brown, beige or pink.

The tragicomedy of the nuclear family is duplicated in the lives of a second couple: Michael’s friend Damian is one half of a mixed marriage, the other half being Stephanie, “who is wholesome and attractive in a Kate Moss-meets- Alison Moyet kind of way, and she possessed something that Damian did not possess: an aptitude for contentment.”

Stephanie’s contentment lies in moving away from London and recreating the bucolic childhood she had enjoyed for her own three children. It is a decision that makes Damian, who now has to invite his in-laws to a monthly Sunday roast, deeply resentful. “His life was wrong, Stephanie was wrong, his house was wrong, everything was wrong.” What makes it infinitely worse is the emotionally fragile state Damian is left in after his father’s demise — a state that tests his wife’s patience to its limit. Unlike Melissa, Stephanie is totally committed to the idea of family.

Meanwhile, Michael has an affair with a colleague from his office, a white woman, but it is short-lived. “Her life was a different language.” Life is absurd; it is serious. Few literary devices describe the two-toned nature of reality better than irony. Besides strong, precise characterisation, it is the dry, satirical tone that the author maintains for the large part of the novel that humanises these couples and their mundane lives.

For instance, it is hard not to connect with Melissa’s predicament when she takes her son to a sing-song session for toddlers and finds herself drawn into a conversation centred around my-baby-is-better-than-yours. “That thing was happening again, where her mouth made sentences it wasn’t interested in saying and her voice came out flat and monotonal.”

Motherhood is the dissolution of the self. Melissa’s unravelling spirals into an obsession with dust, mice and mysterious lines that appear on the walls, leading her to believe that the house is haunted. This supernatural element gives rise to over-the-top passages of gothic horror that don’t fit in with the rest of the narrative. By and large, the style is confident and controlled, but there are places where the pace flags due to excessive details of the ordinary. What is extraordinary is the portrayal of London. Here Evans excels.

The novel is a love letter to the city’s manifold beauties. The London of commuters “with the steely office blocks and the tall silver scrapers of that strange spaceship town looming above them”; the London of tourists, “the great wide opening of Trafalgar Square where Nelson soared up and the galleries flanked, where so many birds swooped as if it were holy, onto the cold blue fountain pool.”

A novel about modern blacks is incomplete without references to music. Aside from Legend, artists such as Kriss Kross, Mariah Carey, Amy Winehouse and Jay Z are woven into the narrative which ends, fittingly enough, with the tragic death of Michael Jackson. A bittersweet ending to a bittersweet tale.

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Book review: No Ordinary People, by Diana Evans

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