Have you listened to John Legend’s classic song Ordinary People recently? If you haven’t, I suggest you take a quick listen now- it will give you a four-minute summary of the themes which punctuate this Literary Fiction novel. The narrative begins in the hills of South London suburb, Crystal Palace amid the social backdrop of the Obama inauguration party where the holders; two successful brothers themselves invite the interchangeably beautiful and accomplished people that they know. Instantly, Diana Evans zooms a lens into a social scene filled by black British professionals such as lawyers, actors and media types. The beginning is racy, not your usual start for most novels, smack bang in the middle of an exciting event where euphoria and celebration is high. Subsequently, that’s the beauty of it. I found myself positively, overwhelmed and excited for what was to come in a story which angles the black British experience from an alternative angle. Evans even signposts a number of songs being played during the party such as PYT by Michael Jackson to really get a glimpse of the nostalgic excitement of the party mixed in with the newness of having a first black president.
Melissa and Michael, a trendy married couple are attendees of this Obama party. They are described as being on the ‘far-side’ of youth, yet clinging to it. Herein our story is set. Let’s briefly go back to John Legend where in his song, Ordinary People he mentions reaching past the honeymoon phase. This is exactly where our protagonist couple lie. Melissa and Michael are burrowing further and further into the crevices of a cosy middle-class life, cushioned in an inner London suburb, Sydenham. They have two children, one a baby, so they’ve achieved their 2.4 children quota and the white picket fence. So what exactly is the problem? Well, exactly those things- the monotony of life, the inner trappings of responsibility when you are still hanging on to the remnants of your glistening youth by the threads.
I love Michael’s character. Though I have met too many Michael’s to recall in my own Black British life, I don’t recall ever reading about someone like him, a suave British born black man of Jamaican heritage, with lashings of dashing swagger and handsome charm. His youthful personality is sweet and brought a smile to my face. His wife Melissa on the other hand is colder, more considered and less emotionally reciprocal to his affection and need for it, this made her less likeable to me but of course, she has her reasons why.
An interracial couple Damian and Stephanie make up the other near protagonists. In response to Michael’s confident swagger, Damien certainly creates less impact. He wears ill-fitting suits and is described as having a thickening tyre around his waist -another signifier of the reality of busy married life with parental responsibility and lesser time for self-care than the former couple. Damian cuts a sadder figure than his best friend Michael. He is grappling with grief and a lack of closure from his lonely, deprived upbringing with a Trinidadian father who he watched decline before his own youthful eyes. He seems to be marred by this. On the contrary, Stephanie, his English wife comes from a more affluent background and a functional, if not imposing family who have expectations of Damian. Can Stephanie use the formulaic nature of her own upbringing to sew her husband back together? We’ll have to see.
In this book, Evans dynamically weaves the couples together to create interesting twists and turns for the reader.
Though the book champions themes from parenthood and grief to ageing, Ordinary People at its crux is centred on identity. The social and genetic make-up of the characters is a central theme throughout the story and seems to overpower the plot, but isn’t this what Literary Fiction is about? Being that fly on the wall and really being able to zoom into a character and all their flaws and motivations. Through its main characters, Ordinary People is a Venn diagram of sociological and Literary discovery of how we come to be who we are, from factors that are mostly beyond our control. It is who our parents were to us and how they brought us up and where. It is how this impacts the romantic and platonic relationships we have with others and what we allow our lives to become as a result of it.
Above all, I really enjoyed reading this book. It was an experience. These characters really could have been friends of mine. Furthermore, it really helps that Diana Evans has told this story through a backdrop of music and the text is dotted with head nods to artists such as Jill Scott, Michael Jackson and a Tribe Called Quest, all of whom I grew up listening to. This book is successful in offering a lens into the socio-cultural experience of Black British professionals in modern London and it’s a breath of fresh air.