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Friday, March 13, 2020

A Good Neighbourhood by Therese Anne Fowler

A Good Neighbourhood by Therese Anne Fowler.
Published 10th March 2020 by Headline Review.
Read March 2020.

Oak Hill, North Carolina: A leafy, respectable neighbourhood, full of established family homes. A quiet and close knit community, where professor of forestry and ecology Valerie Alston-Holt has been raising her mixed race son as a single mother for the past eighteen years. Valerie is immensely proud of the fine, talented young man her son Xavier has grown into and she knows she is going to miss him terribly when he goes off to music college in San Francisco in the autumn.

All is well until the old house next door is knocked down and the garden full of trees razed to the ground, and instead, a huge, modern home, complete with pool and paved yard takes its place. along with a new kind of Oak Hill family - the Whitmans.

Although, on the surface, the Whitmans look like a traditional family unit, they are all about new money, flashy possessions and ambition, with a secretly troubled teenage daughter, Juniper. They have little in common with their near neighbours, the Alston-Holts - something that is clearly apparent from the off, when Mr Whitman mistakes Xavier for the hired help.

After an uncomfortable and tentative start, the neighbours reach a kind of peace, and it even seems that Mrs Whitman and Valerie can become friends, but they are soon at odds over the historic oak tree that lives in the Alston-Holt's garden. This tree is Valerie's pride and joy and it has been damaged by the construction of the Whitman's property, so she initiates a law suit against the city, builder and crucially, against the Whitmans.

In the face of the legal battle and strained relations, no one seems to notice a romance is developing between Xavier and Juniper. A romance that will lead to tragedy.


Where do I even start with this incredible book?

From the very beginning, we know that our tale does not end happily, from the words of the narrator - a faceless and nameless person, telling the story on the part of the community of Oak Hill. 

As the story plays out, the weight of disaster to come builds inexorably, until there is an inevitable tipping point beyond which our young lovers speed faster and faster towards their tragic fate. You find yourself yelling at them to stop and see sense, to realise the danger of their relationship, so many times, but are powerless to prevent what must surely come. It is all so beautifully done, that you are compelled to keep reading until the final page, even though you know the ending will surely break your heart.

There are so many lovely themes in this book - a veritable array of meaty subjects to pick over after the event. So I can only cover a few here in this review. This is a book you will want to read, so you will be able to savour them all yourself anyway!

Inescapably, there are the themes of star-crossed lovers, families at war and forbidden love - our doomed Romeo and Juliet. But a hell of a lot more has been shoehorned into these pages by our skillful author too - control, stereotyping, racism, screwy patriarchal ideas about purity, environmental protection, the arrogance of new money..... I could go on and on.

One of the most interesting ones for me, was the theme of coercive control, as evidenced by the skewed relationships in the Whitman family. I don't want to give away too much here, but the delicious thread of manipulator masquerading as a saviour is written so well here by Therese Anne Fowler. You will get angry, indignant and down right terrified by the goings in the Whitman household.

I particularly enjoyed the way our author cleverly introduces the tiny seed of a shocking idea to your mind by introducing Vladimir Nobokov's Lolita as a book for Valerie's book group. From little acorns do mighty oak trees grow, if you will pardon the obvious pun, and an idea slowly takes hold in your mind that chills you to the core. Ever so nicely done it is too. 

There is an intriguing thread about purity vows too. Personally, I find it extremely creepy that a daughter would pledge her virginity to her father and the pseudo-marriage ceremony involved makes me feel nauseous. But I did enjoy how Therese Anne Fowler dealt with the subject in this book. Rather that portray the concept of a purity vow as wrong, she allows Juniper a voice here - and we are therefore, given to understand why a young girl might find this an attractive idea. It did give me food for thought, but I am still firmly of the mind that this is a disturbing idea and one which is all about patriarchal control - somewhat borne out by events too.

I loved the way our author turns some stereotypes on their head in this story - for example, the highly educated, black professor with a high achieving son; the idea that a good provider makes the best father - but she also shows us that some stereotypes are deeply ingrained and can still cause a lot of damage.

I could ramble on for ever, but I think I will stop here. This is a book that will set you talking and will be a gift for book clubs around the globe. Let me finish by saying that this book is outstanding. I could not put it down once I had started and polished it off in less than a day. It is fair to also warn you that this tale completely destroyed me emotionally and I sobbed my heart out at the conclusion. Would I go back and wish it unread? Absolutely not! Read it and you will see why.

A Good Neighbourhood is available to buy from your favourite book retailer now.

Thank you to Louise Swannell of Headline for gifting me a copy of this glorious book, in return for an honest review.

From the cover of the book:

In Oak Knoll, a tight-knit North Carolina neighbourhood, professor of forestry and ecology Valerie Alston-Holt is raising her bright and talented biracial son. All is well until the Whitmans move in next door - an apparently traditional family with new money, ambition, and a secretly troubled teenage daughter.

With little in common except a property line, these two very different families quickly find themselves at odds over an historic oak tree in Valerie's yard.

But as they fight, they fail to notice that there is a romance blossoming between their two teenagers. A romance that will challenge the carefully constructed concepts of class and race in this small community. A romance that might cause everything to shatter...

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