Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Book Review: THE BOOK OF ORDINARY PEOPLE by Claire Varley

Author: Claire Varley
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia
Read: August 2018
Expected publication: out now

Book Description:

Three things different. Three things the same.

Meet Evangelia, a grieving souvlaki shop owner; Rik, a news hack haunted by his past; Nell, a lawyer who worries over her soul; and Ben, a young father desperate to measure up - four people who have everything and nothing to do with one another.

But each of their lives is about to be changed forever by Aida, a woman who never wanted their help, nor their sympathy. A woman with her own tale to tell...

My musings:

One of the best things about books are the glimpses into other people’s lives, and the more vivid the characters, the better the experience. The Book of Ordinary People is just that – a glimpse into the lives of five ordinary city dwellers living in Melbourne. Except, ask yourself this: what is ordinary? Doesn’t everyone have a unique story to tell, their own trials and tribulations, triumphs and failures, joy and pain?

Here we have Aida, an asylum seeker from Iran, anxiously waiting for her visa to come through; Evangelina, a Greek-Australian, who is still grieving the recent death of her mother; DB and Nell, who are both working for the same law firm but whose lives are just about as different as they can get; and Patrick, an unemployed ex-journalist who is still reeling from a traumatic experience on his last deployment. All five people are connected in some way, even though they are not aware that their paths have crossed, their lives intersected. Each of them is beautifully drawn, the glimpses into their lives so well chosen that we get a feel not only for their current predicament, but also their rich pasts that have led them to this very point in time. Five ordinary people, going about their ordinary lives. But, as Evangelina discovers when digging into her mother’s ordinary past, even the most unassuming person has a unique story to tell and their life will touch that of others and change it in some unfathomable way.

One only has to read Varley’s own history to see that her life has been far from ordinary, and that she brings with her a rich background of travel and working in different industries that have shaped her understanding of what makes people tick. That, combined with an eye for detail and the ability to create a rich, moving tale out of five ordinary lives, makes for a wonderful reading experience. It was like walking down Melbourne streets and peeking through windows (not that I recommend doing that), watching people go about their day. For me, a reader who usually prefers intricate plots and killer twists, it provided a palate cleanser from a fare of dark mysteries, like a breath of fresh air. Out of the five main characters, Aida most stole my heart. However, there are also many wonderful supporting characters who touched me deeply, like Madeline, who may feature only briefly but whose message lingered – not only for Nell and DB, but also for me.  And of course little “naughty Nikki”, who puts the ongoing issue of the treatment of refugees in Australia into a whole new light. Varley’s work with refugees and asylum seekers, and her advocacy for victims of domestic violence offers a background here that makes this story not only richer, but also very relevant.


In summary, The Book of Ordinary people is an extra-ordinarily beautiful and touching book, offering glimpses into the lives of five random strangers. Incorporating many topics relevant in Australian society today, the story gave rare insights into the plights of the people around you, that stranger on the train, the girl serving you coffee in a shop, the woman dropping her kids off at the school gates. I found it both interesting and thought provoking, and thoroughly enjoyed the journey into the hearts and minds of these characters.

Thank you to the publisher Pan Macmillan Australia for the free copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.

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