Thursday 18 October 2018

A superbly precise novel about romances going cold

Fiction: Ordinary People, Diana Evans, Chatto & Windus, paperback, 336 pages, €19.57

Enchanting: Diana Evans is an excellent writer of emotional moments
Enchanting: Diana Evans is an excellent writer of emotional moments

Cal Revely-Calder

Madame Bovary is full of neat sentences, but here are two of the neatest. Flaubert is describing how Emma's affair with Leon has gone as flat as her life with Charles: "She was as disgusted with him as he was sick of her. Emma rediscovered in adultery all the banalities of marriage." The prose is a thing of exquisite, cruel balance: it laces two lovers together as an incompatible pair, then parallels the failing affair with the marriage it was meant to betray. If it were any looser, more demonstrative, it wouldn't cut so deep.

Diana Evans's Ordinary People gives us romance going cold with just as pitiless a precision. Two middle-aged London couples - Damian and Stephanie, Melissa and Michael - are watching their marriages, or long-term partnerships, dwindle. In the meantime, you have to keep living, so the pairs cross paths, have dinner, even holiday together in a brief sunny spell. All the while, they're steadily weighed down by domestic disagreements, which seem small and insubstantial, and therefore add up to the slowest and worst of catastrophes. Ordinary People is a novel of being late for the kids' show, allowing the rice to burn, not saying that thing outright. The only event with the chance to go seismic is Michael's brief affair with Rachel, a girl from his office; oddly, it doesn't.

Evans is a superb writer of emotional moments: how enchanting they are, how they both resist and inspire description. Being so engrossed in the here and now, the 300-odd pages of Ordinary People make a fairly distracted collective; the couples' interactions are a little blandly alike, and there's a subplot about a haunted house that never quite fits in. But Evans' prose is always magnificent, composed and unshowy; it's as if she measured each sentence, trimmed the excess weight, then fitted it into place. The longer ones skim along in a paratactic rhythm:

"The Christmas tree was ruled by an angel. She had a fine kingdom. It seemed to float, above its glossy mound of presents, a mist came off of it, the magical mingling of tinsel with fairy lights, of dust and pale daylight from the bay window, of faded olive-green foliage with many colours and forms of decorative bauble."

Forgotten are the prim conjunctions or punctuation-marks that might tidy this up. Instead, as Evans' prose becomes a little unbuttoned, you see a character's emotion flare. "This was all a far stretch from where Damian had begun. He was not from Surrey but from London, south London, he was a child of the Stockwell tenements."

For Damian is black, the child of an activist who "made a career of his outrage", and Stephanie is white, the girl who has monthly roast dinners with her parents and becomes a "peachy daddy's princess" again. Melissa and Michael are both black, but her family is from Nigeria while his, like Damian's, is from Jamaica. Rachel, meanwhile, shows how Michael's eye can be tinted by fantasy; by sober day she's "olive-toned", but by night, and in drink, he admires her "cream-coloured neck". Racial identity is less a badge that the characters dream of wearing than an exhausting mix of destiny and imposition. Often its foibles are outdated, a gift from parents like Damian's father Lawrence, who was a political warrior and an emotional child. Damian is struggling to mourn his death. Nobody wants to be vicariously designed.

The standout moment is the murder of Justin, a black 13-year-old boy who stumbles into the world of gangs and is knifed to death on the street: "The blood continued to run into the mortar around the paving slabs outside the chicken shop. It would never quite rub off, through all kinds of weather. It was there if you knew it was there."

The novel began at a party to celebrate Obama's election; now, less than a year later, Justin's fate is a slap to anyone who believed that that victory represented an end. Melissa warns that she and Michael need to get out of London, decamp to Sussex; think of their children, Ria and Blake. "Stop exaggerating," Michael returns, "they need brownness too, you know."

But Ordinary People is suspicious of radical pieties, because they're not how the world outside Twitter works; instead, Evans gives us the groove in which most people are too busy being stuck. "I don't think you can write about black characters without writing about race," Evans recently said, but she added that for her it was a "platform" for "the experience of middle age, identity crises". Or, for younger Londoners, death on the street. Either way, everything goes on cooling, settling, becoming the banalities of life.

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