Michael and Melissa and Stephanie and Damien are Londoners, slipping quietly into their late thirties and into a stifling domesticity that comes with the ordinariness of mortgages and children and responsibility.
Pink Floyd talked about hanging on in quiet desperation as ‘the English way,’ and while this song is not part of the soundtrack of this novel – a novel punctuated throughout with the sounds of the nineties and noughties – the ‘quiet desperation’ these multi-racial families feel is the beat that thrums relentlessly throughout the narrative. At a time that should be signalling hope, change and progress – the novel opens at a party to celebrate Obama’s inauguration – the ordinary lives of our protagonists are anything but hopeful.
Diana Evans explores the now almost-forgotten delight of new love, unadulterated love untinged by the mundanity of everyday life and the stresses of staying afloat in a city made increasingly difficult to inhabit. Evans takes us back to those moments, if only to throw into sharp relief the present impasse at which our characters find themselves.
‘…When they had returned home from some other party, and oblivious to the new day beginning, the requirement for sleep, had continued the music in the soft silence of the sheets with the mist receding and the light rising and the calling of the birds outside.’
‘His love for her was still deep and wide, it shattered him, it was destroying him, and while he knew that this was so he wanted it to carry on until the last drop was poured out of him, even though he knew that there was no last drop, no end, no way out.’
London is as much as part of this book as the characters are; Evans depicts the city as a living, breathing thing with almost Dickensian levels of detail and animation. Living in London’s deep South (Michael and Melissa) or out in the suburbs (Damien and Stephanie), the city proper comes alive in the way no other place can.
“By now it was evening and darkness had fallen on the river. Whenever he came to the South Bank he always got off the tube at Embankment rather than Waterloo so that he could walk across this river, and feel what it meant to be a part of it, containing as it did in its spirit the abundance of the city, the history of it, the souls of its people. He watched the silver of the lights on its ever-moving surface, felt the deep breathing of the tide out towards the ocean. He relished it, this power of London to allow an escape from the self, for just a little while, in a munificence of surrounding, an enormous activity and excitement.’
The shifting female identities that come with motherhood are explored in a way that felt very real; an erasure of the self. Melissa’s past life – high-flying fashion journalist – couldn’t be more different to her current existence as a mum of two trying to freelance in precious stolen hours – where a visit to a mum and baby group is akin to torture. The transformation of parenthood has an unique effect on mothers, Evans shows, while fathers can continue with their identities still in-tact, the option to start afresh a hovering – and sometimes tempting – possibility.
Evans resists a traditional trajectory; the novel instead moves through these normal lives in a profoundly sad way that is also beautifully depicted through her exacting prose. Things rise and they fall, but there is no overarching plot or satisfying denouement –while the lives of the rich and famous play on in the background – Obama, Michael Jackson, the soundtrack of John Legend – these, instead, are just the lives of ordinary people.