DIANE DE BEER
A Good Neighbourhood by Therese Anne Fowler (Headline Review):
A perfect on-the-surface family moves into a new neighbourhood – a good American neighbourhood. The family next door is represented by an African-American mother with her mixed-race son.
The mother, whose fields are forestry and ecology, regards those who destroy trees as “raping the landscape”.
But not only had Brad Whitman cut down ALL the trees in the garden to build his brand new house next door, he had also circumvented all the rules with the help of officials charmed by his celebrity status. Because of unethical drilling practices in the back garden to build a patio and pool, it has damaged an ancient oak tree in Valerie Alston-Holt’s garden – the reason she has never left this home even though it held dark memories because of her husband’s death.
The scene is set for some explosive business with race, underhand dealings and an unwavering moral compass, all coming into play.
Adding to the already combustible mix are two young adults – the mixed-race Xavier Alston Holt (who in this time on face value is regarded as a young black male) and the lily-white Juniper Whitman – who fall in love even though the young man has been told by his mother that “those kinds of people are all about keeping their girls and their bloodlines ‘pure’. Forty, fifty years ago his kind would lynch you just for looking at her. Maybe they’re not stringing up boys anymore, but the attitudes haven’t changed.”
And watching what Americans get up to during lockdown – and before – this is not hard to imagine.
Juniper, on the other hand, took a purity vow at the age of 14 on the insistence of her stepfather Brad and her mom, Julia, who wants to protect her daughter from facing the same kind of dilemma she was faced with when pregnant and still just a teen. Brad often refers to her as a rescue bride because that’s what he did when marrying her with a young daughter, he believes. Scratch a little under the surface of any of these smiling families and the skeletons come tumbling out, is what the author implies.
But she’s set up the perfect scenario with which to tackle many different issues and she has also chosen a specific style in which to tell this story, with someone from the good neighbourhood as the narrator. Yet, while she/he/they address the reader directly, we don’t know who she/he/they are.
And it is especially with the narrator that I had problems. It’s a cunningly clever story as it brings together so many different strands and issues that criss–cross one another, in a very contemporary and accessible kind of way.
Take, for example, the Brad character. He is a self-made man but as soon as he starts making REAL money, a certain entitlement starts emerging as he cuts corners with anything he wants changed in his life. He feels that he has earned that and that he doesn’t have to consider anyone else in these dealings. It’s simply to satisfy his own needs.
As for his needs that emerge more clearly about his budding and beautiful stepdaughter, Juniper, he justifies those because he has assured himself that this inexperienced, naive young girl returns his feelings. He should be the first to show her the way.
It’s heady stuff as we dive into so many different dilemmas which families have to deal with in a world that is becoming more and more complicated to navigate. And because as a society we seem to hop, skip and jump from one story to the next due to a short attention span, one that seems to diminish daily, some people do terrible things with the knowledge that the information will only be out there for a blink of an eye. And they’re right. With scandals coming at you from across the world via a myriad of social media, how can you keep count? Some stick, others seemingly disappear without much attention, either good or bad.
So all these things play into a fascinating story of a good neighbourhood (and we know those, there’s a wonderful Afrikaans saying, Stil waters, diepe grond, onder draai die duiwels rond loosely translated as still waters run deep and that’s where the devil roams).
I could hardly put the book down because the story is so compelling, but throughout I was thinking of particularly two friends, both writers, who would kill this one. What was a thrilling story and one very relevant to our times, could also be a brilliant novel with some smarter writing and editing.
Take this following rumination:
“Two people are in each other’s company and feel the pull of attraction: We call that pull chemistry, but what is the actual substance? (Really?)
And it goes on…: What’s the biology of sexual attraction, and is that biology the same as romantic love, and did this pair of teenagers have it, whatever it is?
This rambling goes on for one and a half pages and the two teens who are sketched with much wisdom, would be far more interesting on this topic than the narrator(s).
So while this is a gripping novel to read and hugely enjoyable, it seems once you are a New York Times Bestselling Author, you can get away with almost anything.
There’s a reason good editors get such high praise. They are often the ones who keep authors honest, who can see when there’s something special but also when something needs some smart cleaning up.
It’s not the device that is the problem here, it’s the way it is applied that doesn’t quite work and as the story and the characters’ goings on get momentum, the irritation levels also rise…
But check it out for yourself. It is a damn good story.