A Good Neighbourhood (2020) – Therese Anne Fowler

Title:A Good Neighbourhood
Author:Therese Anne Fowler
Publisher/s:Headline Review/Jonathan Ball Publishers
Date of publication:2020
Star rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Jonathan Ball Publishers kindly sent me a copy in exchange for an honest review

Oak Knoll is best described as a “carefully constructed community” – a North Carolina neighbourhood where everyone gets along, everyone lives together in harmony, and barbecues and book clubs are the backbones of almost all social interactions. Those that live there only want the best for their community, and even though the neighbours occasionally glance out of their curtained windows, they swear it’s because that’s what good neighbours do – they look out for one another.

Valerie Alston-Holt, a professor of forestry and ecology, and her son Xavier live in a modest old house in Oak Knoll with a massive and equally ancient oak tree in the bottom of their garden. The tree is why Valerie and her husband Tom bought the property all those years ago, and though Tom has passed away, Valerie’s love for the enormous tree has never wavered. Her son who is biracial (Valerie is African-American, and Ben was Caucasian) is a brilliant musician with a scholarship to a prestigious music academy after high school. Brought up in a house of academics (Ben was a sociology professor), Xavier is a motivated kid with an impeccable work-ethic.

The property next door to the Alston-Holt’s has been bought by Brad and Julia Whitman. Before they moved in they renovated completely, tearing down the previous house, and putting in a swimming pool. Their daughters Juniper (Julia’s from a previous marriage) and Lily are trying to settle into their new home and make new friends – a somewhat difficult task with a father and step-father like Brad who had convinced his step-daughter to take a ‘purity vow’ at the age of fourteen. Brad is strict with the two girls, and even having a mobile phone is a big deal. Before anything else is said it is worth noting that Brad, a wealthy owner of a company selling heating and cooling systems, and also a minor celebrity, is a very unlikable character.

Days after moving in Brad spies Valerie and Xavier, and invites them next door for a barbecue. Valerie is reluctant to step onto the sprawling patio, and sit next to the obnoxious swimming pool that she suspects are the reason for a suspicion she’s held for a while – her precious tree is dying. Valerie is convinced that the excessive construction in the Whitman’s yard has damaged the intricate and vast root system of the oak, and that the tree she once cherished will soon wither away from the trauma. Whilst the families smile and nod, and Valerie and Julia genuinely make a connection, it is Xavier and Juniper who fall in love despite the impending (and frankly inevitable) tension that will form between the two neighbouring households.

Told from the perspective of the Oak Knoll community, and neighbours of the Alston-Holts and Whitmans, A Good Neighbourhood feels like a juicy story told over coffee and cake behind closed doors and drawn curtains. It is a story of how we put on a façade, how we put on a fake smile and how we say and do what we think other people want us to say and do. Fowler’s novel is not just fiction though. In many ways, A Good Neighbourhood is a blatant view on racial politics in the United States right now. The tension evident in this fictional story is very real though, and the underlying violence that simmers in the air is not something the characters or the readers have imagined.

Fowler’s novel is about so much more than just teenage love, and a small community hiding behind their own desire to remain neutral. It is also about standing up for your convictions, and not remain silent when you should actually be speaking up. Amidst this suburban setting lies a multitude of dark secrets that start to unravel very quickly when these two families become entangled in each other’s lives – which is not unlike so many domestic thrillers in the same setting. What makes A Good Neighbourhood stand out is that the tragedy in this community, in this novel, in this state of America, is not so fictional at all. Fowler has a very direct way of writing about tragedy, and though it sometimes lacks emotional language, the story is still only hers to tell.

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