This novel opens in the style of Desperate Housewives: the omniscient voice of “the neighbourhood” provides a commentary as would a Greek chorus, both setting the reader apart from the action and warning that this is a pre-ordained tragedy. The entry of new neighbours into Oak Knoll, a quiet, leafy, and settled neighbourhood in North Carolina is announced with a note of warning. Oak Knoll inhabitants are not too rich and flashy and certainly not rough or poor but mostly educated, considerate and comfortable.
In the neighbourhood live civilised, educated, good people including Valerie, a black woman, widow, university teacher and her teenage bi-racial son. Eighteen year old Xavier is decent, well-balanced, helpful and a good student with a scholarship to a distant university at the end of summer. Valerie and Xavier have witnessed the removal of an old house and trees next door and the building of a large, modern home and pool. Now they encounter the new family moving in. Brad is a self-made man with a successful air-conditioning business, a wife who had been a struggling low-income solo mother, a teenage stepdaughter, Jupiter, and an eight year old daughter. Initially the neighbours exchange pleasantries, even though Xavier is mistaken for the yard boy.
The teenagers are drawn to each other: Xavier is perceived to be black because of his appearance but feels more white given his upbringing in this suburb; and Juniper is a private school student who has taken, through her church, a vow of chastity till marriage. A crisis is brought about by the discovery that the enormous oak tree in Valerie’s garden is dying because of the ground disturbances caused by the new building next door. And so she seeks litigation for damages from Brad and the builder.
The young lovers’ budding relationship is affected by the antagonism that ensues. Brad is developing sexual fantasies about his young stepdaughter and finding that the two teenagers are involved stirs up a cauldron of anger, jealousy and racism. With the background narrative voice reminding the reader that this is not going to have a happy ending, life unravels for all the characters in one way or another.
The writing shows perception and insight into the interior, the thoughts and feelings and motivations, of individual characters, both black and white, that the reader recognise in their own neighbours. As to whether the characters have the resonance of real people, I certainly felt that while embodying very real and believable attitudes and prejudices, they also served the narrative as a whole, as players on a stage. So perhaps the point of this novel is to illustrate the thin veneer of civilisation that overlays issues of sexism and racism in society; that even in the seemingly educated and settled, so called “good” neighbourhood, a bi-racial teenager is still seen as black. And that being black or white, male or female, rich or poor creates a divide that can lead to tragic ends.
I highly recommend this story for discussion in any “good neighbourhood” book club for the opinions and viewpoints it will arouse. The overarching ideas, and for the narrative which depended on the motivations and actions of its characters offers much food for thought and discussion.
Reviewer: Clare Lyon
Published by Hachette