Ordinary People by Diana Evans review – magnificence and marital angst

An exuberant investigation into midlife malaise explores love, compromise and the way we live today

In his 2004 song “Ordinary People”, John Legend portrays the bittersweet stage of a romance past its first flush, when the mess of everyday life is setting in. “Passed the infatuation phase”, he sings, “Seems like we argue every day.” Diana Evans borrows his song’s title and theme for her exuberant third novel, about midlife relationship malaise. The shadow of marital breakdown loomed around the edges of her award-winning debut novel, 2005’s 26a, which was framed by the beginning and end of Charles and Diana’s marriage (as well as Diana’s funeral) in the first and last chapters.

Ordinary People is much more about the compromises made after the babies have arrived and the butterflies have stopped fluttering. For the two late thirtysomething couples here, existential panic is sparked by dwindling sex lives and the stresses of sharing housework and childcare duties. Melissa and Michael are a golden couple to their friends, both beautiful, with two children and a new house in Crystal Palace, south London, while Damian and Stephanie live a settled life with three children in Dorking, outside London. Disaffection seethes in both households and manifests in domestic warfare. Mislaid bedsheets and broken wardrobe rails become sources of extreme tension. A conversation about a fitted sheet sends Damian spiralling into marital despair: “Why did she have to pick this moment to ask about a sheet? Why did he marry her? Why did he live on the outskirts of Dorking?” In these scenes, Evans sends up the overblown dramas of nuclear family life.

She is particularly good at the gendered distinctions of midlife crises. Michael is frustrated by the lack of passion in his relationship and his sexual hunger leads to infidelity, though he goes about it not with the weary cynicism of an Updikean man but while yearning for Melissa. Damian is bored in the ’burbs, fantasising about an edgier life, too lethargic to do anything to change his current one, but the emotional complexity surrounding the recent death of his father gives him depth and saves him from the usual cliches associated with the suburban husband.

Melissa’s crisis is enmeshed with motherhood, which has diminished her career as a magazine journalist and cut across her sense of personal freedom. The mind-numbing tyranny of childcare is portrayed in soft play sessions that leave her tormented. “Motherhood is an obliteration of the self,” she says, and we see her sink into paranoid anxiety.

Her unravelling is one of the most compelling parts of the novel. She suspects her new house is haunted, and Evans’s switch of registers from the satirical to the compassionate, and then to a kind of gothic horror, showcases her fine, versatile writing. Stephanie is the only underdeveloped character, a traditional housewife whose psychology Evans does little to probe.

If Ordinary People is about compromise, it is also about how we live today and, refreshingly, Evans shows this through the prism of black and mixed-race identities, conjuring an urban milieu that is middle-class and non-white. The opening chapter features a high-octane party thrown by Melissa and Michael’s wealthy friends for “all the important, successful and beautiful people they knew”. The party is to mark Barack Obama’s coming to office in 2008, and the hopes embodied in a first black American president add significance to the book’s exploration of what it means to be black or mixed-race today. But while the inauguration is a clever way in, just as the death of Michael Jackson seems to mark the end of this short-lived era of hope in the final chapter, both Obama and Jackson are so freighted with American history and politics that their symbolism feels cosmetic and irrelevant in relation to these couples.

It is a forgivable flaw, given the accomplishment of this novel, which has universal appeal in its reflections on love and yet carries a glorious local specificity, even more so than 26a, which was set in the Neasden of Evans’s youth. The book reads like a series of love letters to areas of London. Evans vividly shows the city’s frenetic energy, its overcrowding and its mess, seen from the bus window of Michael’s daily commute, and through Damian’s homesickness for the city he has left behind for Dorking: “… the hum of it, the Brixton roar and the beloved river, the West Indian takeaways, the glittering of the tower blocks at night …” In some grandiose passages Evans seems to be deliberately giving us Dickensian pastiche, zooming out to narrative vistas of the city before returning to the lives and homes of her couples.

The novel has an accompanying playlist, and Evans builds these 23 songs into the story so that they illuminate character (“Melissa’s journey to love was a different story to Michael’s. If it had a song, it would be Dido’s Hunter or Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive”), or set a mood (“he passed a busker who was playing Aaron Nevill’s Hercules on the guitar…”) or evoke emotional states; the effect is a wonderful marriage between word and sound. “This ain’t a movie love / No fairytale conclusion y’all,” sings Legend in “Ordinary People”. And yet the soap-opera trajectory of Evans’s Ordinary People has a movie quality. It could easily be reimagined for the screen, though the film would not capture the sheer energy and effervescence of Evans’s funny, sad, magnificent prose.

• Ordinary People is published by Chatto & Windus. To order for £12.74 (RRP £14.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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