Across the suburbs of north Melbourne, five strangers begin their day. Aida waits, trapped by past and circumstance, unable to do anything else. Rik hides, stalked by career failure and the ghost of something much more sinister. Nell works, unfulfilled and dreaming of making a difference instead of a living. DB swims, using structure and routine to try and force his life to fit the mould he always expected it would. And Evangelia’s anger boils over as she mourns both her mother’s death and the culture nobody else in the family seems to care about. On the surface, these five people seem disconnected; but as their lives begin to intersect, common threads emerge, revealing unexpected similarities and shared passions.
Author Claire Varley weaves a beautiful narrative about family—both the one we’re born into, and the ones we build for ourselves. Beneath that narrative lies a bedrock of stories; the stories of culture, the stories of our personal histories, the stories we tell ourselves and each other, and the stories on which we build our identities. Washing over everything is a current of grief. Varley has drawn with a deft and gentle hand on this universal emotion, and each character initially dwells in a stage of the grieving process. DB is firmly in denial about the direction in which his life is attempting to go. Evangelia is angry, and her family bears the brunt. Nell bargains for her integrity by throwing herself into pro bono legal work. Rik is both deeply depressed and wrestling with what presents as post-traumatic stress disorder; overwhelmed, he sees no purpose in what he does. And Aida, having endured unspeakable horrors escaping her homeland and coming to Australia by boat to seek asylum, waits in limbo; powerless but to accept her circumstances as they come.
There are plenty of heartbreaking moments in The Book Of Ordinary People. Many emerge from stories and Varley cleverly uses the contrast between the story being told and the context in which it is told to make these moments keenly felt. Rik’s profiles of colourful locals for the local newspaper sit against the monochrome of his own existence; the emails DB composes to a friend abroad only deepen the tint of his rose-coloured glasses. Nell’s bland, jargon-filled legal documents, and her determined but unsuccessful edits, show the disparity between her career and her dreams. The Persian legends Aida tells her housemate’s child Niki are filled with grandeur and heroism, in stark contrast to their threadbare lives—but the single-word story Niki tells Aida on a tour of her kindergarten is the one that drives home both their plights.
The Book Of Ordinary People perfectly captures modern-day multicultural Australia. Varley has experience working in migrant and refugee communities, and in violence prevention initiatives, which lends her fiction an authentic voice and genuine gravitas. Even more heartening is that despite the darkness within her characters, she allows them—and the contemporary Australian communities they represent—moments of quiet hope for the future.
Amanda McLeod is a Canberra-based author and artist, with several short fiction works published in print and online. Find her on Twitter @AmandaMWrites