When Julie Proudfoot offered me her debut novel, The neighbour, for review I was more than happy to accept. After all, it had won Seizure magazine’s Viva La Novella Prize in 2014, and you all know how much I love a novella. I must say it’s a gorgeous looking book. I’m not one to judge books by their covers, but neither am I immune to a beautiful book, and The neighbour is that – from its rich, green and mysteriously intriguing cover to its crisp, clear internal design. It is such a pleasure to hold and read. No wonder I prefer print to electronic!
But of course, the most important thing is the content, and the book delivers here too. It’s an Ian McEwan style page-turner. By this I mean it starts with a dramatic event which sets in train actions and reactions as the characters struggle to come to grips with the event, with its impact on themselves and their relationships, and with the way it exposes secrets and past traumas. The event is the horrible but accidental death of a child due to a mistake made by a neighbour. The circle of characters is tight – Ryan, Angie, and the nearly-five Lily, who live next door to Luke, Laney, and their four-year-old son Sam. On the opening page, Luke acknowledges, internally, that a frisson of tension (“a nervous kind of energy”) exists between himself and Angie – and then she asks him for a favour he does not want to do.
“His actions were wrong, but now he can right them”
The neighbour is a novel about psychological disintegration brought about by grief and guilt, and about the tension that ensues when one wants to forget, another wants to remember, while yet another wishes to atone. Grief, we see, is a personal, private thing, and particularly so when it is bound up in a secret that prevents its full expression. Luke has always been Mr Fix-it for Angie and Ryan, so of course he wants to keep on fixing. If he can just fix their house, the loose roof-tiles, for example, he can make amends. Actions, he tells Angie, are the only way he can “beat down” the guilt. But you can’t help or fix for others if you are falling apart yourself, and you certainly can’t if those others don’t want that help. This is something Luke has trouble recognising as his thinking becomes more and more disordered.
And Luke’s thinking becomes so disordered, in fact, that his behaviour moves into quite bizarre territory. His determination to fix things for Angie and Ryan, despite their refusal, edges him into stalker territory. But, stranger still, Lily’s death resurrects (I’ve chosen this word specifically but I’m not going to explain why!) memories of his older brother’s drowning when they were children. Luke’s response to these memories is, there’s no other word for it, sadistic, but we go with it because we know Luke is losing his hold on reality. He is not a sadist. He is a troubled man. We care about him – because Proudfoot makes sure we do.
She achieves this by telling most of the story through Luke’s perspective, though we also occasionally enter other perspectives, such as Angie’s, too. It’s in third person, but present tense, so we journey with Luke, and other characters, as they try to make sense of their situation. Here’s Luke after Ryan has vehemently rejected his attempt to fix their roof:
As he climbs back over the fence, he can feel Ryan watching him. It’s going to be tough. Ryan will fight it. He knows this, but they’ll thank him in the end. They don’t even know what they need right now. He’ll get them all back on track. Ryan and Angie need never be aware of it.
The language, as you can see, is clear and direct. Because we are in Luke’s head most of the time, description is kept to a minimum, but the writing is nonetheless evocative. Sentences are generally kept short, which keeps the story moving and develops tension. The short, choppy sentences also mimic the characters’ erratic, distressed mental states. Here is Angie through Luke’s eyes:
When she talks her face is in parts. Her eyes shine. Her mouth moves. Her cheeks square up when she speaks and droop when she stops. In doing what Ryan wants, she has become fractured and tense. The more Luke tries to help her, the worse she gets.
Then there’s the plotting. It’s delicious. As the novel progresses, we think we’ve guessed the back story, and we have, but not quite. As it builds to its conclusion, we think we know how it will end, and we are right, almost. The end, in fact, has a beautiful irony – and is perfect.
Despite its brevity, The neighbour tells a complex story of grief, guilt, culpability and responsibility. There are layers, here, as there often are in tragic accidents, but rather than labour them, Proudfoot trusts us to comprehend them while she gets on with the story. This is a powerful, thoughtful – and at times – shocking novel that gripped me from its opening sentence. I look forward to seeing what Proudfoot produces next.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) read and enjoyed this when it first came out.
(Review copy courtesy the author)