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Hannah Beckerman

There is a moment in Diana Evans’s third novel when one character observes: “Marriage, it was all about the kids… The romantic love from which they sprang becomes an old dishevelled garden visited on rare occasions fuelled by wine and spurts of spontaneity, and the bigger, family love is where the bloom and freshness lie.”

The capacity of the four protagonists – two black couples in their 30s struggling to balance the demands of family life with the desire for independence and romantic love – to accept this shift in their relationships is at the heart of Evans’s thoughtful and intelligently observed novel.

Michael and Melissa have been together for 13 years and live in Crystal Palace, south London, with their two children. Melissa is struggling to negotiate the tension between motherhood, feminism and the desire for professional identity, while Michael – still deeply in love with Melissa – is desperate to rekindle their lost passion.

In Surrey, Michael’s friend Damian and his wife, Stephanie, have decamped from London – at supermum Stephanie’s behest – to bring up their two children away from the city. Damian – like Melissa – feels stifled by the monotony of family life and spends much of his daily commute fantasising about having the courage to leave his marriage.

Alongside domestic angst, external threats abound. In Crystal Palace, a 13-y ...

There is a moment in Diana Evans’s third novel when one character observes: “Marriage, it was all about the kids… The romantic love from which they sprang becomes an old dishevelled garden visited on rare occasions fuelled by wine and spurts of spontaneity, and the bigger, family love is where the bloom and freshness lie.”

The capacity of the four protagonists – two black couples in their 30s struggling to balance the demands of family life with the desire for independence and romantic love – to accept this shift in their relationships is at the heart of Evans’s thoughtful and intelligently observed novel.

Michael and Melissa have been together for 13 years and live in Crystal Palace, south London, with their two children. Melissa is struggling to negotiate the tension between motherhood, feminism and the desire for professional identity, while Michael – still deeply in love with Melissa – is desperate to rekindle their lost passion.

In Surrey, Michael’s friend Damian and his wife, Stephanie, have decamped from London – at supermum Stephanie’s behest – to bring up their two children away from the city. Damian – like Melissa – feels stifled by the monotony of family life and spends much of his daily commute fantasising about having the courage to leave his marriage.

Alongside domestic angst, external threats abound. In Crystal Palace, a 13-year-old boy is stabbed as gang violence escalates. And Melissa becomes convinced that their house is haunted by a previous occupant, her paranoia and fear increasing in parallel to the gradual disintegration of her relationship.

Race is essential to these characters’ lives, but Evans’s delicate prose weaves issues of racial identity and politics into the narrative so that they never feel heavy-handed. Michael – upon embarking on a flirtation with a white colleague 12 years his junior – observes: “The real difference was in her life, in her history. She could never know him completely because she had not lived as he had lived. She did not belong to the brown world in which he had learned his fear, his fury and his distrust.” But for his partner, Melissa, “Michael’s reliance on brownness was a prison, hers as well as his. It cut him off from other possibilities … He did not want to go to France because his race-detector read high levels of fascism. He did not want to go to China, to Australia – too backward, too white … It had given him a script of his life, or forced it upon him, and he was compelled to follow it.”

Evans writes with great humour and insight about the monotony of caring for small children, and provides a sharp psychological portrayal of the disenchantment and estrangement of long-term relationships. Although the first half of the novel suffers from an excess of backstory, which interrupts the sense of quiet urgency she has introduced in her characters, Ordinary People is nonetheless a deftly observed, elegiac portrayal of modern marriage, and the private – often painful – quest for identity and fulfilment in all its various guises.

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