Review of A Good Neighbourhood, Therese Anne Fowler, April 2021
I think it’s fair to say this is a ‘Marmite’ book. The reader audience split firmly in a 1/3 vs 2/3 judgement, with the smaller group giving high scores for readability, drama, pace and overall enjoyment. The larger group however, were able to pick significant holes in this book and as a result came up with a much poorer review.
The narrative device which is so present in the novel, of the Greek Chorus of the ‘neighbourhood’ itself, equally divided the audience. Did it do too much scene setting, and feel intrusive and preachy, or did it allow us to see with more perspective, recognizing the judgement and gossip that exists in all neighbourhoods?
The characters are colourful, Brad with his ‘white knight complex’ assuming that he is saving the world, one rescue wife at a time and Julia with her white trash childhood that she wears like a huge monkey on her back. But the young teens, Juniper and Xavier, are bland and too flawless, if we scratch the surface at all we don’t find much underneath. The intention, we think, was for a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ innocent romance, where all catastrophe and carnage turns out to be a failing in responsibility from the adults around them.
The most robust part of this book, ironically, may be the ecology - the imminent death of the precious oak tree due to the mansion crowbarred into a small traditional plot next door. Valerie’s first intention was merely to highlight this issue to prevent further ecological damage, as a case of principle, but the first mention of significant financial compensation takes very little time to warp her thinking.
The intention, I think, in her choosing to include race in this story (perhaps it would have been better to make the characters all white?) was to turn traditional racist thinking on its head. Valerie and Xavier are middle class, educated, refined. The new neighbours are anything but. This tried to be a clever twist on stereotypes, but perhaps ended up just clumsy.
In a way, the author throws everything into this novel - religion, race, parenting, abuse, class, disadvantaged childhoods, money, tragedy - and I probably haven’t covered it all. On the other hand, there is a strange shallowness to the book, as if she is reluctant to engage in ‘the dark stuff’ : difficult or complex emotions, even to detail dialogue between characters. We as the readers, are also forced to choose where we sit. Do we enjoy it, on a dramatic, superficial ‘ sun lounger’ level, or do we have to acknowledge that if she wants to write about racism, then she has to do it better.
Whilst it’s easy to pick it apart, and dismiss it as light fiction and definitely not literature, it is an immensely readable book, without clunky writing. I certainly have read worse, as I’m sure you all have!