Map of Blue Book Balloon

19 July 2021

#BlogTour #Review - Good Neighbours by Sarah Langan

Good Neighbours
Sarah Langan
Titan Books, 13 July 2021
Available as: PB, 400pp, e
Source: Advance copy provided by the publisher
ISBN(PB): 9781789098211

I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance e-copy of Good Neighbours and for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

Taking place during a freakishly hot summer in the late 2020s, Langan's new novel is written as looking back a couple of decades to report on the famous scandal which engulfed Maple Street, an idyllic suburban community in Garden City, Long Island. The scandal - a couple of weeks of rising hysteria and mayhem leading eventually to... well... read the book to find out - is presented as something which is widely known, often written about, and which continues to fascinate. 

The text is scattered with passages from popular retellings, press cuttings, and interviews with the participants but this is for scene setting, rather than being a presentation of a confused and contradictory narrative for the reader to resolve. We're not left to piece things together, the main narrative gives a more-or-less straight account of what happened. The "viewpoint" pieces do though serve a secondary purpose, showing how some of those present have constructed a false and misleading narrative to which they will stick regardless of the known facts.

Good Neighbours is, in essence, the story of two families, the educated and comfortable Schroeders (mum Rhea, dad Fritz, and kids FJ, Shelly and Ella) and their more raffish next door neighbours the Wildes - Gertie, Arlo and their children Julia and Larry. The Wildes are recent arrivals in Paradise and have rough manners which don't fit with Maple Street: Arlo smokes, for goodness' sake, and he turns out to be a washed-up rock musician who has (or had) substance issues. Gertie is a former beauty queen with a troubled family background which makes her volatile at times. And Julia, well, Julia is "fast".

As the story opens, we're about to see the fractures in Maple Street open up - metaphorically, as hard words are exchanged at the 4 July party and literally, as a sinkhole appears in the park where the party is  being held. Worse is to follow - a death, accusations levied by neighbour against neighbour, backed up by a frenzied pack of kids, and the unspooling of an apparently solid marriage.

I had the feeling that Langan was rather enjoying laying the foundations for all this, leading us up to the final catastrophe while introducing hints of backstory, showing how characters who seem to have it all together may, in reality, be rather teetering on the edge (metaphoric falls come rather naturally in this book!) It would be spoilery to say too much about this, but I was impressed by how credible this background was, giving someone who might easily have been portrayed as simply a monster a lot of depth, logic and even pathos. 

A major theme here is misunderstanding. Sometimes this is from genuine incomprehension of another's background, feelings and motives, of which there is plenty (and we see all sides, empathising when it arises from someone's sense of inadequacy or perception that others won't side with them). Sometimes, it results from deception - but that isn't always to excuse it, there are those who are ready to be deceived, ready to judge, to excuse shocking behaviour in themselves and others even when they know it is unwarranted. (There is more than a hint of Salem in Garden City). There is also a lot of self-misunderstanding (or self-deception) both on the negative side but also the positive: many here are in reality more resilient, braver and just better than they'd have thought.

The stresses and cracks in the little community are counterpointed by that sinkhole, which is always a bit mysterious, and by the ground beginning to ooze bitumen, which coats everything, is trodden indoors, snares small animals and birds and fills lungs with its coolly smell. Even electronics is affected, semi-isolating the suffering community. Inevitably, given the portrait we have of this group of people, rather than uniting the community this natural(?) catastrophe just leads the parents to further rounds of accusations, denunciations and greater flights of fancy and blame. Not that they seem to need much reason for these - the barrel of gunpowder was, we gradually come to understand, long in place. The sinkhole is perhaps not a narrative device that is necessary to drive the plot, but it does add a distinct touch of the unheimlich to this story of very human failings, a hint that the times are out of joint, chiming with the ominous hints which a story looking back from the mid decades of the century can plausibly deploy.

An enjoyable book, which gets more and more tense as it reaches its conclusion and one which gave me that genuine sense, as I tuned the pages, that I wanted to know what happened next - but that I was also frightened to discover it.

For more information about the book, see the poster below for other stops on the blogtour. Or look at the Titan website here.

You can buy Good Neighbours ours from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop dot org, Hive Books, BlackwellsFoyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

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