Saturday, 28 February 2009

A Crime in the Neighbourhood.

I picked up 'A Crime in the Neighbourhood' by Suzanne Berne in a charity shop a while ago. It had a little note in the front that says "Another book for your holiday - it's v. good. Have a great time. Rachel". I like buying second hand stuff and knowing that it has been owned and used by someone else before you. It feels ecologically sound to have 'stuff' moving round the economy and being used many times over. The fact that it won the Orange Prize was probably what made me pick it out, and on checking out the Wikipedia page I find I have already read several of the 13 winners (and read other novels by a couple of the other prize-winning authors), and maybe it would make an interesting project to read the rest during this year of 52 books.
So I find myself following a bit of a theme here as this is another book about loss. And another book about a girl with a notebook. In 'What was lost', after her dad dies, Kate becomes a 'detective' and goes around observing and making notes on everything and everyone in a notebook. In this book it is Marsha who takes to watching her neighbours' every coming and going. Her quiet 1970's suburban American childhood is disrupted by firstly the departure of her father, and secondly the murder of a young boy. It is told by Marsha herself, but writing as an adult, who, on finding her notebook, is looking back and reflecting on the impact of the events of the summer in question. Her family history is one peppered with unreliable men and as such the story is based around some wonderful, strong female characters; the clutch of aunts and the neighbourhood housewives, whose men are merely homogenous 'Mr so-and-so'. The murder causes an atmosphere of paranoia in what had been a peaceful and relatively close-knit community, but Marsha has her own problems; her newly absent father, pubescent twin siblings who ignore and exclude her, a somewhat distant and distracted mother and a distinct lack of friends. She becomes obsessed with observing their recently arrived neighbour, Mr Green, with what turns out to be quite devastating consequences. Her sense of loss at her father's departure sits in the background as the weeks go by, she comments several times when the phone rings that she is sure it is him, giving an impression of the longing she feels for him to return. The children see him a few times during the immediate aftermath of the breakup before he moves entirely out of their lives. The teenager twins put on a front of disinterest and then anger towards him but it is plain that they all feel utterly abandoned. But it is not until right at the end, nearly at the end of his life, when Marsha finally blurts out the appeal "Why did you leave me?" that you realise quite how deeply the abandonment was felt.
The title of the book becomes a little ambiguous, what really is the crime, and who was the perpetrator? A boy is murdered, but we learn nothing of his family's reactions, other than the information that they move away soon afterwards, and the murderer is never found. Marsha's father leaves, and we do see quite vividly the pain it causes, to all concerned, including himself when he feels the impact of his decisions. And Marsha herself casts suspicion upon an innocent man, in what is plainly self-consciously attention-seeking behaviour, and then spends the years after tormented by the guilt of the impact her words have. Before he leaves Mr Green approaches her and just says 'why' and, young as she is, she truly knows what she has done is wrong and knows what damage she has done to his life by her false accusations. The combination of events that occur at what becomes a precarious moment in Marsha's life leave her, as she says at the end, with the sense that "nothing in my life would ever feel safe". It is quite a bleak feeling, that one's sense of security can be so vulnerable, and that the impact of such a loss can be so long lasting.
So, a good book, a very good book. Thought provoking and well written. Very much inside the mind of the 10 year old Marsha, with her adult self never making excuses for her own behaviour or trying to rationalise, just honestly telling it like it was. And despite my childhood being very English I found it very nostalgic.

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