Contemporary British Novel: Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Cover of Ordinary People by Diana Evans and quote: 'How long will you go on living your life, as if you were balancing on a ribbon?'

I read Ordinary People because it’s on the 2019 shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. This is a contemporary British novel set in South London detailing the lives of ordinary people. I expect extraordinary things especially since it made it to the shortlist.

‘At 11.30 a.m. The sandwich trolley arrived, a tall silver vehicle which lately had developed a squeaky wheel. It came at the same time every day, too early, at the lunchtime of children. The arrival of the sandwich trolley was Damian’s proof that school was preparation for this kind of future, that from a very young age our training for captivity is in motion – the uniform, the fifteen-minute breaks, the ridiculous premature lunch. The sandwich trolley was the moment in his working day when he felt most strongly that his life required a dramatic change, a splintering, some kind of scandal or shock or tremor, when he most wanted to flee, to rip off his suit and run screaming from the building, and go – where? Not home, not to Dorking, but to some loose, untethered place, any kind of ocean or other country, to a transcendental sphere where breadth itself was marvelous and the breeze was open and palpable and there was nothing in the way of it to make it seem irrelevant.’

Struggling Couples

Ordinary People takes place over the course of one year, it starts with a party celebrating Obama’s election and ends with a new years even party. Over the course of this year we follow the domestic lives two black middle-class couples.

Our first couple is Melissa and Michael who just moved to South London to the narrow Victorian house which seems to be in need of constant fixing. Michael commutes to the city for work and Melissa is a stay-at-home mom who works as a freelance writer. Melissa struggles to balance child-care and her freelance work, since Michael is at work and comes home later than usual because of the commute.

‘”The greatest challenge in life is not to die before we die,” Melissa said. “I read that somewhere. It happens to a lot of people.” She was going to add, “I think it’s happening to me,” but didn’t.’

‘”Things are better, I guess,” Melissa said. “But they’re the same as well. It’s the same problems. Life consumes us. We get caught up in it and forget about each other. Sometimes I think we’re just fundamentally not enough – he’s too much for me and I’m not enough for him, or the other way round, I don’t know. It must be that, what you were saying. Relationships and children simply don’t belong in the same place.”’

‘She wanted to be at the beginning of something again, rather than in the eventuality of something. Out here in the midst of this jumbled sixsome, it felt as though Michael, she and Michael, were an old, safe place, and however high they went, to whichever number of cloud, they would always arrive back in this same safe and dusty place, where there was nothing left to discover, where the future was dressed in the past.’

The second couple is Stephanie and Damien, who live outside of London, on the fringes of Dorking. Stephanie is content with her life and of her role as a mother and she persuaded Damien to move out there for the sake of their three children. Damien misses living in London.

‘They had always seemed to her a mismatched kind of couple, Stephanie being taller than him in the first place, but sometimes that could work, no, it was more than that, Damian so uncertain and introverted and floundering, then Stephanie so fixed and bold, sitting there in the pool of her long green cardigan, as is she never thought too deeply about anything. They were living in the shade of each other.’

‘There was something about Stephanie’s singular commitment to the work of motherhood that nevertheless troubled Melissa, even as she admired its focus, its confidence. It seemed to point to an inadequacy within herself, a possibility that she was suppressing in herself. A part of her wanted to kill this thing in Stephanie. She wanted to smash her house to pieces, to break it open and force her out of it so that everything entrenched would be thrown into the air and land differently, making new ways of living, new ways of growing. “What will you be then,” she asked her, “when all your work of raising is finally done? Will you remember yourself, how to get back to yourself? How much of yourself do you get to keep?”’

The Setting

The scene is South London with the backdrop of the now dilapidated Chrystal Palace which, after it served its purpose of hosting the Great Exhibition of 1851, was relocated from Hyde Park to South London ‘to shine off at a margin’ because ‘there was no need for that showy glass kingdom in the heart of central London’s prime green space’.

The Crystal Palace serves as a parallel to these couples’ marriages as the building was shiny when located in central London but began to decline after the shift to South London.

Rhetorical Questions and Thoughts

Can a marriage still ‘shine’ once practicalities/banalities of running a household and raising children take precedence over the self? Can one still be in ‘the now’, keeping up with what’s happening in the world when one is living ‘forgotten’ in suburbia?

Ordinary People is coming to terms with identity and self-realization after having children and ‘adulting’ responsibilities.

I loved the writing style, the tone and the setting. Diana Evans is great at creating an atmosphere and detailing the struggles of everyday life, of keeping a marriage working when parenting takes over every aspect of life and love gets shoved on the backseat or forgotten completely.

Should we stop wanting to be happy and just be content?

Damien and Melissa struggle with identity crisis and Michael and Stephanie are the ones who have to deal with the consequences of their spouses’ struggles. I enjoyed looking at the lives of these four people and seeing who they where, who they wanted to be and whether they let life wear them down. I think the toll of everyday life catches up to all of us at some point so this is a book everyone can relate to.

‘”I can no longer live this life and I am going to go and save myself”. But of course he didn’t. He couldn’t. The evening passed, the next day came, and things went on as normal. If you entertain and act on every impulse that passes through your mind, went his line of reasoning, you will find yourself in chaos. Hold on to the things that bind you. The self is a doomed and wayward creature. It can be neglected and this will not kill you, at least not in every way.’

I enjoyed the idea of this book and I’m not saying it was badly executed but I felt that it went on to many tangents and I kept spacing out and loosing track. I feel that there’s just too much unnecessary detail which could have been edited out. I struggled finishing it.

I recommend it for those who are in the mood for slice of life contemporary sad stories rife with relationship drama and unglamorous everyday life.

Other Contemporary British Novels to Read

On the hunt for the best contemporary British novel? Check these titles:

  • White Teeth by Zadie Smith, which is on my TBR,
  • The Paying Guest by Sarah Waters,
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishigure, I just read this and I have mixed feelings about it.
  • The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling, I read it and loved it

Check out my review of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, another great contemporary read.

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