When Luke is implicated in the tragic death of a child, he struggles to assert his innocence to those around him. While the accident invokes haunting memories of Luke’s late brother, who died when they were children, he strives to maintain a grip on reality as his relationships begin to unravel.
The Neighbour sounded exactly the kind of story to slot into place beside books I’d recently been bingeing on: narratives that deal with dark sides of suburban life.
I was right. And wrong.
The Neighbour does deal with dark aspect of suburbia, but its impact is different from other writers’ work. Whereas books like Dawn Barker’s Let Her Go tease the reader with the possibility that something awful will happen, and Wendy James’ The Lost Girls and Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks make the reader dread the revelation of what (awful) thing has already happened, the terrible event in The Neighbour happens early and happens hard, leaving the reader in no doubt. When it occurs, it’s of such a horrific nature that its impact reverberates throughout the rest of the story. (I’m not the only one who had to put the book down to recover – see Sean’s review at Adventures of a Bookonaut.)
The Neighbour is told primarily from the point of view of Luke, a man whose life is tethered to that of his neighbours, Angie and Ryan, by more than proximity. The neighbours socialise together; Luke helps Ryan rebuild his shed and fix things around the house; their small children, Luke’s son Sam and Angie and Ryan’s daughter Lily, climb the fence to play with one another. The closeness would appear to be near idyllic, until an accident creates a seemingly unbridgeable rift between them.
Luke’s unravelling as a result of the accident is excruciating to follow. We witness him experiencing a pathological form of dissociation which makes his behaviour appear more and more threatening. As the story progressed, I kept on having to pause, to take a breath, as the narrative tension tightened. The suspense of the story is created by the question, “How far down will he go?”
In some respects the novella, particularly its ending, reminded me of a much gentler story, Charlotte Wood’s Animal People. Both stories deal with a flawed, male protagonist; neither man is good at relationships. However, whereas Wood’s novel ends in a satisfying catharsis, Proudfoot’s evokes more pathos, even horror.
For me, the greatest impact of the story came from its meditation on death, or, more specifically, on the illusion of control over death – and life.
He looks for that window of time between life and death, that state of grace where life can be given or taken. Perhaps it’s the moment when meaning is assigned to a life lived, or left gaping and gasping for forgiveness, that moment when a person can still be saved by those with the power to. If there is such a moment. Maybe there’s no such moment. Maybe you’re alive, then you’re dead. (p 105)
Proudfoot is to be congratulated, not only on her award, but also on the publication of a beautifully written and powerful story.