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September 11, 2018

Diana Evans' Playlist for Her Novel "Ordinary People"

Ordinary People

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Diana Evans' smart and entertaining novel Ordinary People is one of my favorite books of the year.

The Guardian wrote of the book:

"If Ordinary People is about compromise, it is also about how we live today and, refreshingly, Evans shows this through the prism of black and mixed-race identities, conjuring an urban milieu that is middle-class and non-white.... [This novel] has universal appeal in its reflections on love and yet carries a glorious local specificity.... It could easily be reimagined for the screen, though the film would not capture the sheer energy and effervescence of Evans’s funny, sad, magnificent prose."


In her own words, here is Diana Evans' Book Notes music playlist for her novel Ordinary People:



Music was so much a part of the writing of Ordinary People that the playlist made itself. It took me seven years to complete and the music kept me going. I would hear a Michael Jackson song on the radio and remember exactly what I was trying to do. I’d listen to John Legend’s Get Lifted album all the way through, sometimes while doing yoga, and feel a tremendous excitement at the idea of fusing this music into the lives and minds of my characters. It was an experimental exercise, to see how closely music could walk with sentences, how the lyrics of the songs could speak of the book’s multiple psychologies. There are songs in every chapter of Ordinary People, as there are songs in every life, dancing songs, driving songs, cleaning songs, talking and drinking and thinking songs. The novel was originally called ‘Bell Green’, after the area in which it is set in South London, but the name was later changed in acknowledgement of its major salute to music, that title song in particular containing a beautifully accurate account of the conflicting phases of love. This is a book to be read and heard at the same time, then listened to again in pure sound, bringing the characters and their world back to you on the replay. Music is memory. It reminds us who we are.

1. Q-Tip, Breathe And Stop (4.03)
A deep-set hip hop party tune played in the house of Ordinary People's the Wiley brothers in celebration of Obama’s first election win, which now feels like eons away in the midst of the orange horror, but Q-Tip helps me remember. It was a historical moment that I wanted to document in the context of ordinary people’s lives.

2. Mariah Carey and Jay Z, Heartbreaker (4.45)
Mariah Carey is the sweet, trilling, smooching, honey-scented voice that has accompanied us through three decades of R&B and pop. The noughties and the nineties would not have been the same without her and long may she endure. Here’s another party song in which a rap from Jay-Z ends up smothered in candy-floss.

3. Michael Jackson, P.Y.T. (3.58)
When I was thirteen I did a staged dance routine to P.Y.T. with some school friends and believed for the duration that we were actually popstars. Michael Jackson had that effect on us: he was one of us; we were in his life in the same way that he was in ours – at least that’s what he made us feel, a grand, deep connection.

4. Isaac Hayes, By The Time I Get To Phoenix (18.44)
This is a long song, building slowly over eighteen minutes, reaching a beautiful brassy climax, it’s breathtaking. Isaac Hayes has the most warmly sumptuous, enveloping voice. It’s a perfect song for crossing a river, which is why it was chosen as Melissa and Michael’s Thames-crossing soundtrack in Ordinary People.

5. Beres Hammond, There For You (4.52)
A sweet and simple reggae love song from one of the most distinctive and longstanding voices in the genre. Hammond has that gravelly, slightly growling, elastic sound to his voice that can bring virtually any rhythm track to life. This is the song Melissa and Michael would marry to if they ever were to (a question left open at the end of the book).

6. Amy Winehouse, Love Is A Losing Game (2.35)
How I miss Amy. How I was waiting patiently for more songs from her singular stormy boat. I love the way she sings, drifting around the beats, falling back and coming back, and the dangerous determined sadness. At least she left us what we have of her. This song has a hazy, back-room quality that shines in quiet, foreboding afternoons.

7. John Legend, I Can Change (5.01)
John Legend’s Get Lifted album is reviewed in Chapter 4 via Michael’s love-life ruminations on the 176 bus through London on his way in to work one morning. Here Snoop Dogg gives John (or Michael) some home truths on the importance of changing one’s womanizing ways when one comes across a girl who’s ‘off the hizzle’. More hizzles follow. I couldn’t resist.

8. Roy Ayers, Running Away (6.44)
A background song to Michael and Damian’s man-to-man chat in the Satay Bar in Brixton one Friday night. One of the few venues in Brixton that has ridden the bleaching storm of gentrification and come out the other side more or less in tact. Roy Ayers remains a beloved figure in black music and this is a signature hit.

9. Jill Scott, One is the Magic Number (3.49)
Timing is everything. Sometimes the wrong song comes at the wrong time even when it’s a good song, and says the unsayable. Melissa and Michael are out on date night trying to rekindle the flame when Scott, swaying on stage before them at the O2 in green smoke, sings this beauty about the glory and attractions of lone-ness (as opposed to loneliness).

10. Jaguar Wright, Country Song (3.56)
An extremely overlooked, under-exposed artist in the soul pantheon, Jaguar Wright is gutsy, funky, quirky, and she swivels around a beat like it’s made of water, or jelly, or something similar. Another background tune to set the scene of Melissa and Damian snow-trapped and bearing their souls to one another while drinking Rioja.

11. Susana Baca, De Los Amores (5.14)
There’s no other sound quite like the combination of Susana Baca’s mournful scintillating voice with guitar strings or a bow on a double bass. Immediately transporting, elegant and subtle, this song has a haunting, mysterious quality, the singer’s passion spilling over the sides. Another red wine background song.

12. Nina Simone, Mr Bojangles (4.58)
When I die I will have this song played at my funeral. My favourite Nina Simone song, resplendent in its melancholy, tender in its celebration of a chequered life, playing in the kitchen during Melissa and Michael’s sombre talking about a boy who has been killed in their neighbourhood.

13. I Wayne, Living In Love (3.33)
Possibly my favourite reggae song of all time. It has a surging, ringing quality to it, an endlessness, and seems to continue in your head when it’s over. ‘I like to see my people living in love/I hate to see them fighting and swimming in blood’. The opening lines, expressing a simple, universal wish in a perennially troubled world.

14. Nirvana, Come As You Are (3.39)
This song is playing in the belly of an angular Spanish villa near the climax of the novel, with someone reading Tolstoy upstairs, and someone barbequing downstairs, and Michael Jackson waiting in the wings for his big moment. This song has a hardcore gloomy bounce I have always found impossible not to react to with strong head movements.

15. John Legend, Ordinary People (4.41)
I have a confession to make: this is not, as you might expect, my favourite John Legend song. But it’s the one off the Get Lifted album that speaks most accurately of the peaks and troughs of love, and of my desire to see the everyday in middle-class black lives normalised and humanised. Thank you, John.


Diana Evans and Ordinary People links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Financial Times review
Guardian review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
Telegraph review

Weekend Edition interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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