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In Diana Evans’ sequel to Ordinary People, a series of subtly drawn domestic vignettes add up to a state-of-the-nation masterpiec­e. Here, the author tells Erica Wagner why she felt compelled to continue telling her characters’ story


Diana Evans was working on a book for younger readers when she felt an urge to turn away from fantasy to the events of the real world. ‘There was so much going on around me, in our politics, in Britain, that I was angry and outraged about, and I just couldn’t carry on with this fantastica­l adventure story – it didn’t feel important enough,’ the author tells me. She realised it was time to return to past characters who simply wouldn’t leave her alone.

Evans made her name in 2005 with her debut 26a, a haunting bildungsro­man about twins growing up in Neasden – as Evans herself did – that won the Orange Award for New Writers. But it was her third novel,

Ordinary People, published in 2018, that marked her out as a writer blending political engagement with literary excellence. Domestic love and strife are set against the Noughties background of Barack Obama’s inaugurati­on and the death of Michael Jackson, placing the narratives of its four lead characters – Michael and Melissa, Damian and Stephanie – into history. It was shortliste­d for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Rathbones Folio Prize and the Orwell Prize.

‘I thought, when I finished Ordinary

People, that it was over,’ Evans says now. ‘It had taken seven years to write and I was just so relieved to be out of it finally.’ But storytelli­ng has its own demands, and six months after the book’s publicatio­n, she found its characters were calling her back. It had been a turbulent time: Grenfell Tower had been destroyed by the worst residentia­l fire in Britain since World War II; the UK had voted to leave the European Union; and Donald Trump had been elected President of the United States. ‘I felt a need to record what was going on around me in some way, and these characters were speaking to me,’ she says. ‘I could hear their voices, and I was interested in what happened to Michael and Melissa because, to me, their love story felt like it had almost epic proportion­s. I really wanted them to be together and was interested in why they couldn’t work it out – how much that had to do with the people they had been before they met each other, and the world they were living in then.’

In a bid to answer these questions to her own satisfacti­on, she wrote A House for

Alice, which is set in 2017 and begins with two fires: the disaster at Grenfell Tower, and a house fire that sets the events of the novel in motion. In the latter, an elderly man, Cornelius Pitt, is killed; the titular Alice is his estranged wife, and Melissa’s mother. While seemingly settled in London, she longs for the place she still thinks of as her home – Nigeria – and determines to build a house there. This is a rich, multi-layered novel of interconne­cted lives; it’s no wonder Evans cites Tolstoy as an inspiratio­n. ‘I love his writing,’ she says. ‘I love the fact it is so magnanimou­s and huge, yet so intricate and accurate in the way it observes the psychologi­es of people.’ She also cites Richard Ford and John Updike, whose Rabbit books offer a detailed portrait of a particular slice of America’s white middle class. ‘I guess I’m doing a similar thing from inside the Black British middle class – I’m trying to chart and document everyday life, and watch characters as they go through time.’

Like Ford and Updike, she plans a multibook series: she knows that A House for

Alice will be the second part of a trilogy, the next book set eight years after this one. ‘The great thing is I have quite a long time before I even need to start writing it,’ she says, happily. ‘I think by that point I’ll be ready. I’ll be curious to see where these characters have ended up. I will have had time to see what’s going on around me.’ Time to see, to consider and, no doubt, to create another rich, detailed portrait of not-so-ordinary people.

‘A House for Alice’ by Diana Evans (£18.99, Chatto & Windus) is out now.

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Diana Evans

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