Sometimes, reading can make you feel like people are living much bigger lives than your own. Lying in bed after a day in front of the computer and replying to what seems like a million emails, stories of war and crime, dramatic love and loss, there is a clear difference between the lives of the characters and mine. Usually this is a good thing.
However, I remember an ex-boyfriend once telling me that, at 28, he hadn’t experienced enough to write a novel. (Twenty years later, without seeing his name on the cover of a book, I wonder whether his life experience ever became as interesting as he hoped it would.)
I was reminded of his words recently, when I was reading about the ordinary life of a couple after their extraordinary escape from conflict in Bosnia, Black Rock White City. The book wouldn’t have had quite the same drama and tragedy if it had solely been written about that quiet life. But, I wonder whether a dramatic life is necessary to create a story, as sometimes, it is the small parts of life that make the biggest impact on a reader.
As it suggests its title, Sally Rooney’s book, Normal People, deals with ordinary lives, and the extraordinary emotions within those lives. Somehow, the individual in the story transcends the ordinariness of their life to become fascinating. It is not a foreign experience of war or disaster, but the very familiarity, through the eyes of another, that is remarkable.
In Rachel Cusk’s books, it is also the ordinary that captivates the reader. In Kudos, Cusk writes about her conversations with other ordinary people, and the extraordinary insights into their lives that they offer her. They talk about the death of a family pet, professional disappointment and loneliness.
These are all so ordinary as to be mundane, but written with beauty and empathy, they become a story that readers find themselves unable to put down.
In the famous short story published by The New Yorker, Cat Person, the writer explores feelings and experiences within a new relationship that are familiar to most readers. There is excruciating awkwardness, humiliation, hope and resignation, and it is impossible to look away.
Elizabeth Strout is a master of creating a story of the small – of whispered conversations between neighbours. Strout is restrained in her descriptions and her dialogue, letting the reader gradually come to understanding or enlightenment.
The first time I realised it was possible to make a story out of an ordinary life was when I read Raymond Carver’s short story collection, Short Cuts, in high school. Chandler embraced the domestic and shone a spotlight on the little everyday dramas that can break a heart.
And isn’t it true that the heart can swell at the most unexpected times. Since becoming a mother, I’ve noticed that small moments can be enough to bring a tear to my eye – the procession of students into school assembly when my eight-year-old catches my eye, an unexpected confidence from a friend, or a child singing.
Ever since I heard the song, ‘Small Wonders’ by Rob Thomas, I have loved how it celebrated all of the moments of understanding, love and joy in the everyday.
Even in big lives, it can be the smaller details that can make the biggest impression. In Beloved, it is the scenes of peace before the tragedy at the centre of the story that are the most affecting, and in The Kite Runner, it is the friendship between the boys, and the loss of that relationship, that is the most heart breaking. In Tony Birch’s recent novel The White Girl, it is the moment when the grandmother lovingly washes her granddaughter’s hair, rather than the wider story of racism and family separation, that is the most evocative.
While the great stories of conflict and trauma, achievement or loss, can be rewarding and entertaining, so too can the ordinary lives filled with their own extraordinary moments. It is the skill of the writer to capture those moments, so that the reader might recognise the beauty, and even occasional transcendence, in their own small but significant lives.