Finally finding time to catch up on my Women’s Prize reading, Ordinary People by Diana Evans has been a welcome addition to my Bank Holiday reading.
Without, I hope, sounding too simplistic or glib this is a book where the title really is a perfect reflection of the book’s content. Because this book is in it’s essence just that; a book about Ordinary People. Ordinary people, living ordinary lives, facing ordinary challenges. And it is all the more powerful for it.
This is the story of two couples; Stephanie and Damian, Melissa and Michael. Stephanie and Damian live in the suburbs, have three small children and problems in their marriage. Damian is grieving the recent loss of his father, but more than that he is grieving the loss of the city. Moving out of London was not his choice, it takes him further away from his dreams of writing, of breaking away from his desk job, further away from his roots. Stephanie loves where she lives, is devoted to her children; it’s Damian and his dissatisfaction that is the pebble in her shoe.
Melissa is striving to embrace her new ‘stay- at- home -mother’ status, whilst trying to freelance and maintain her identity. She is resentful of Michael; watching him moving carelessly through the world she can’t help feel that she is the one making all the sacrifices for their young family. For his part Michael is missing the woman he fell in love with, struggling to connect both emotionally and physically.
The prose of this novel is involved and detailed, and the devil is most certainly in the detail. Writing about the ‘ordinary’, the everyday day details that we too often dismiss as unimportant, is not as easy as it seems. Evans manages to convey that these little details, those that we dismiss as insignificant are actually anything but. The ordinary, however much we might long for the extraordinary, is the bedrock of our day to day lives.
As a reader and as a mother this wasn’t always a comfortable read for me. Like staring into a mirror I often saw myself reflected back. I am a mother, a mother who has over the years worked full time, part time or not at all. A mother who has juggled the need for her own identity with the need to raise her children in the best way possible. There have been times when, like Michelle, I have screamed silently, and may be not so silently, feeling lost and alone in this strange new world, so far from my old self that I was worried I had lost my soul forever. I have zigged zagged between trying to be a domestic goddess and a vibrant independent Mum, trying to the answer that age old question; “Can I have it all?”
Here we see central characters that are moving through that fog of parenthood. Negotiating the paradox of overwhelming love but also that intense craving for your own space, just craving yourself, looking forward to the future and back to that person you used to be. Evans presents a skilful examination of what it means to be a couple, the compromises and sacrifices we make to to keep things moving and what happens when that balance shifts and one person is left feeling adrift and untethered. In Stephanie, for example, we someone settled in her role of wife and mother; her frustration lies in Damian’s unwillingness to keep pace with her.
Evans examines how couples fit together and how that unity changes as life happens around it. Can Michelle and Michael weather the tide of parenthood? Or will the reality of children seep, like water into the cracks of their relationship, splitting them further apart.
Framed by two pivotal moments in recent history, Obama’s Election and Michael Jackson’s death, there is no doubt that race and black cultural identify are key themes within the novel. Damian feels he has betrayed his roots leaving inner city London, Michelle is clinging to those not so small details from her childhood, desperate to pass her cultural identity on to her children. For her is important to make eba and stew just like her mother, just as it is important to eat rice with a spoon and a fork. We are back, once again, to the fact that those small factors add up to a larger, more defining whole . The characters within the novel make us question whether can we hold on to our own identify within a relationship? Can we grow together and as individuals, fitting together but also maintaining the essence of ourselves?
And yet, this book is about more than race. It is about place and how place shapes us. Is your identity tied to a place or is it held within you? Damian and Michael are wedded to the city. Damian has left London and is miserable, feeling he has betrayed his roots. Michael is unwillingly to consider moving, even when increasing street crime comes ever nearer to his door. Stephanie has the house she dreams of, but can’t get Damian to engage. Meanwhile Michelle is trapped in a house she grows to hate, so much so it almost takes on a sinister life of it’s own. It is no coincidence that the catalyst for both couples occurs when all are away from London; a new sense of place, new minor details, a new ‘ordinary’ and things are forced to move on.
By weaving together all these elements Evans brings us a stunning novel with the question of identify and all it’s variants at it’s very heart. It brings into the focus how we hold on to what is important to us as an individual, however big or small that may be. It questions whether the choices you have made have lead you to life you are destined to live or the life you have settled for.
Bravo, Diana Evans; you have made the ordinary extraordinary.