In Oak Knoll, a tight-knit North Carolina neighbourhood, professor of forestry and ecology Valerie Alston-Holt is raising her bright and talented biracial son. All is well until the Whitmans move in next door – an apparently traditional family with new money, ambition, and a secretly troubled teenage daughter.
With little in common except a property line, these two very different families quickly find themselves at odds over an historic oak tree in Valerie’s yard.
But as they fight, they fail to notice that there is a romance blossoming between their two teenagers. A romance that will challenge the carefully constructed concepts of class and race in this small community.
A romance that might cause everything to shatter…
What to say about A Good Neighbourhood, where to begin? Well I started it yesterday and finished it today and struggled to put it down when life required me to do something other than read. An absolutely compelling tale that I was sad to finish because I was so drawn to the story and sad but not surprised with how it ended.
Two families – neighbours, the Alston-Holts and the Whitmans, Valerie Alston-Holt is upset about work done by the Whitmans which has irreparably damaged a great Oak tree in her garden. Unable to forgive she decides to take legal action against her neighbours. The Whitmans, don’t share Valerie’s love of trees and see her action as punitive and personal and determine to fight this action.
Meanwhile beautiful Xavier Alston-Holt and the enigmatic Juniper are getting to know each other following an immediate and mutual attraction. Kept secret from everyone due to Juniper and her family’s religious views.
This story is about families and communities, about the ‘good neighbourhood’ of Oak Knoll, in North Carolina, in the South with a shameful racial legacy. What follows is a story about racism – about being black and the daily worry of being stopped by the police, strikingly close to recent events actually and a stark reminder of how prevalent issues of race are in disadvantaging people of colour in all aspects of the justice system.
In contrast we have Brad Whitman, a successful and mildly famous white businessman, his status and wealth give him access to the ‘old boys network’ and he is able to ‘pull strings’ make things happen, his way. His white privilege is obvious and evident.
What follows is tragic and make no mistake, this book is a heavy read. Alongside the obvious issue of race, the author explores, sexism and the role of women, rape is discussed along with consent, sexual development and some sinister sexual undertones, religion is there and conservative / traditional values. The characters, I want to say are largely unlikeable but that wouldn’t be true, I think Brad Whitmore is such a dominant character that he has biased my thinking, but I liked Xavier and his mum and Juniper.
The writing is original, told from the view point of the community, an impartial observer who watched things unfold and only with the benefit of hindsight would they have done anything different. The story is tragic and the reader has no option but to plough on, witnessing actions that they know will have as yet unrevealed, but devastating consequences.
I highly recommend this book, it has depth and is thought provoking, it is timely and accessible and it is honest. It doesn’t shy away from any hard truths to preserve a happy ending.
About the Author
Therese Anne Fowler is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and A Well Behaved Woman. Raised in the American Midwest, she moved to North Carolina in 1995. She holds a BA in sociology / cultural anthropology and an MFA in creative writing from North Carolina State University.
Therese Anne Fowler is white and in her acknowledgements she comments on this, in terms of her creating two African American characters, central to the story. She refers to hearing Zadie Smith respond to a question about this, saying an author can and should write whatever they want, but if writing about characters who are different to them, then just do homework. I think the author did this well.