Couldn’t Diana Evans’s fretful couples just shut up and deal with it?

5 May 2018

9:00 AM

5 May 2018

9:00 AM

My husband started reading Diana Evans’s third novel, Ordinary People, the day after I’d finished it. Three days later, I asked him how he was getting on. He said: ‘I’ve just got to the knifing.’ I said: ‘What knifing?’

I’d already forgotten about the knifing. A whole knifing in south London, complete with innocent dead boy and devastated mother. The incident’s strange forgettableness was a sign of the flaws of a novel so nearly very good, and admirable in many ways. It’s sprawling (like the suburbs of south London in which it’s set), and many of its extended scenes, though beautifully and richly imagined, lack the vital element of plot-forwarding relevance that would make them memorable.

The author is black and so are three of her four main characters (Michael and Melissa, and Damian and Stephanie, two discontented couples). They listen to throbbing music all the time, in the house or on their headphones on the bus, and Evans always tells us which song it is. There’s a playlist on her website to go with the novel. I’ve listened, and it made me feel old and white, but that’s fine.

You live inside these characters’ thoughts for more than 300 pages. The big question of the book is ‘will the couples start being nice and in love again, or is there no hope?’ I still cared half-way through, but by the end, when Michael and Melissa in particular had gone off and on and then off each other again, I did think the hackneyed thought I’ve seen on a ‘Keep calm and carry on’ spin-off mug: ‘Shut up and deal with it.’ Oh, do stop over-examining your relationships and fretting about your bodies’ ‘rightness’ and ‘balance’, please.

Evans is brilliant at capturing the atmosphere of the interiors of small terraced houses in which less-than-happy couples are endeavouring to make ends meet and their relationships work. I fell in love with her writing near the beginning, when she described in detail the failed efforts of the husband of the previous owner of Melissa and Michael’s house to build a pair of grand double doors leading from the kitchen to the bathroom, which didn’t save his marriage as he had hoped. She’s spot-on about the power of our interiors to depress and reproach us.

She’s also good on the tawdriness of urban motherhood: the ‘ten sessions for the price of nine’ at the baby-music group Baby Beat, where desperate mothers have anxiety-ridden conversations about infant rice cakes. She nails the mundanity of job titles. Damian keeps having to tell people what he does: ‘I’m researching the effects of solar heat on large glass areas in multi-storey blocks of flats.’ Evans follows that with a sentence in parentheses marred only by its weak comma: ‘He could never seem to abbreviate this description, every word seemed essential.’

There’s a running theme about the moving of the Great Exhibition across the river to Crystal Palace in 1854. I think Evans uses this motif to build up the South London atmosphere, but it doesn’t add a thing to the plot. It just makes the novel longer. This is a pity, because there’s so much that’s good. I like an author who writes the intriguing sentence: ‘There is a quiet delight in the hearts of people who shop at Lidl.’

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