Claire Varley’s second novel The Book of Ordinary People (Pan Macmillan 2018) is a work of fiction informed by her experience with refugee and asylum seeker communities. In a clever and engaging structure, Varley tells the stories of five ‘ordinary’ people in a series of chapters that resemble short stories, in that each is self-contained and concerned with one main character. But as the narrative progresses, we begin to see the connections between these people, the commonalities of their lives, and the circumstances that account for their rather extraordinary lives. And that is really the message of this book: the hopes and dreams and accomplishments and struggles and kindnesses of all of us, as ordinary people, that elevate us to a higher level; a celebration of the small details of a life that come together to create a sum that is so much greater than its parts.
We are introduced to the main protagonists of each section through strong characterisations and vivid paintings of each of their situations. The opening prologue depicts a traffic jam on the morning Melbourne commute, and how it affects each of the characters. Aida Abedi – one of the most sympathetic characters – is an asylum seeker awaiting news from her case worker about her status in the country. Aida shares a house with Elham and her young daughter Niki, also waiting in that no-man’s land, caught between hope and despair, desperate for an outcome which will allow them to set down roots, to work and to begin – finally – to live in this new country they wish to call home. In her previous life, Aida was a journalist, and throughout the book she writes her own story, her memories of home in Iran, her beloved family from whom she was forced to flee, her feelings of being torn between her desire to return to her homeland and her fear for what might become of her if she does. Aida is the face of the refugee who, although educated and talented in her own country, is bound through a lack of English language skills and / or a lack of the right legal papers, to exist in some sort of limbo while her case is assessed, unable to contribute in a meaningful way or to begin to feel settled in her new country.
The second main character, Evangelia Kouros, is an Australian woman of Greek heritage who is struggling to write the story of her mother’s life. Since her mother passed away a year earlier, Evangelia has felt the weight of familial and cultural expectation fall on her shoulders. She despairs at her children’s appalling lack of Greekness, in language and culture and even in their interest (or disinterest) in their heritage. She desperately wants to achieve something to memorialise her mother, but she is not even sure what that something might be.
We meet DB Arnolds as he swims his regular morning laps, his head full of dreams of his much-hoped for promotion, and his heart weighed down with worries about his job as a lawyer, and the needs of his wife and their young son. DB has very high expectations of himself and his ability to provide for his family and to achieve for his law firm, but as the story develops, he begins to reassess his need to do either in just the same way.
The fourth character is a failed journalist who has been reduced (he believes) to writing pieces of profile fluff about people that don’t matter, to be read by other people that don’t matter. This is perhaps one of the most interesting characters, as he has a backstory that is at first only gently hinted at, but which gradually comes to light as his recently traumatic past is revealed. By the end of the novel, we understand him a lot more, and have greater insight into the reasons behind his strange behaviour.
And the final character is Nell, a bright young professional who is keen to make a difference in the world, but who discovers that all is not what it seems, and that doing good might happen in a rather more roundabout way than she at first imagines.
The wonderful aspect of this book is that the lives of all of these characters are drawn together subtly, gradually and incrementally through the narrative, until each of their stories begins to overlap. The main character in one section becomes a minor character in the life of another. The actions of one affect the life of another. The Butterfly Effect – where the miniscule flapping of insect wings can cause a tsunami on the other side of the world – is demonstrated throughout this story.
Varley writes characters that are authentic and believable. She writes about situations that are ordinary and everyday. But yet it is in this very banality that the power of her writing blossoms. We see average people with non-descript lives in a new light – we recognise sparkles of gold amongst the dust, linings of silver behind the clouds, the rough glint of diamonds in the dirt. Above all, this is a story about stories – about the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell others about ourselves, and the stories we remake and retell in order to create change. Stories are at the very heart of this book – a memoir by a family member; the details of a marriage revealed through a Family Court case; the biographical article in a newspaper; the recounting of past trauma as evidence for the seeking of asylum; the rosy way we present our lives to friends in order to represent our life as something other than – or more than – it is.
This book is full of heart and hope, full of desire and anticipation and longing, full of waiting and planning and ambition. It is full of love and friendship. It is full of the everyday, ordinary lives of people around us, with their everyday, ordinary circumstances, and yet when it comes together as one story, it transcends the ordinary and indeed becomes an extraordinary account of the tender fragility of life, the careful promise of optimism, and the savage truth of courage and resolution.