“I can’t believe in heaven. Even now, as death grows ever harder to unimagine.”
In Leah Stewart’s novel, The New Neighbor, Margaret Riley, a ninety-year-old retired nurse whose only hobby is reading mystery novels lives in a remote area outside of a small town in Tennessee. She is fiercely independent, has no relatives nearby, no friends, and is not exactly the easiest person to get along with. One day, while out reading on her deck, she notices she has a new neighbor. Snooping through the mailboxes, Margaret discovers her new neighbour’s name and curious, she soon creates a way to invite this stranger into her life.
While Margaret’s antisocial personality certainly explains her choice of location, just what masseuse Jennifer Young and her 4 year old son are doing living in the middle of nowhere can’t really be explained. In Jennifer, Margaret “recognized a mystery” and encouraged by the reading of crime novels, she is driven to solve the puzzle. Yet “Jennifer is a cave that blocks the entrance,” to the solution. Margaret recognizes that she and Jennifer have much in common: the desire for isolation, the deliberate avoidance of society, and yet Margaret refuses to respect Jennifer’s privacy.
She is so careful, so guarded. There are locked doors in conversation with her, and no way to tell when you’re approaching one.
The story is told in alternating chapters from Jennifer and Margaret (with a few chapters from a third character right at the end of the book). This format, as I noted in an earlier post, seems to be a popular trend these days. But whereas the format annoyed me in Disclaimer for the way in which the reader is thrown red herrings, here, author Leah Stewart uses the dual chapters to move the story forward but also allows Margaret and Jennifer to speculate about each other. Gradually we learn what Jennifer is running away from, and also through Margaret’s narrative, we see her horrendous WWII experiences.
Without a doubt, Margaret is the marvelous character who claims and dominates this novel. She recognizes that as a ninety-year-old woman, she has a certain invisibility and that she’s marginalized into a stereotype, so she can be grumpy and rude to people and in return they basically pat her on the head, treat her with false gaiety, and chuckle. No one ever calls her to account for her churlish behaviour and any kindness directed her way isn’t personal–it’s a generic act based on: ‘be nice to the old lady who may croak any day.’ Margaret is drawn in such a way that we see a woman who was shaped by her WWII experiences, trapped inside her body, and yearning to tell someone her story. While Margaret intrudes into Jennifer’s life in order to discover her neighbour’s secrets, instead she finds herself discussing her own.
I picked up The New Neighbor expecting a crime novel, and while crimes take place, this is much more the story of two women at different stages of their lives whose paths cross and connect. Jennifer and Margaret have a great deal in common for they both have secrets, and that’s what Margaret recognizes in Jennifer.
There’s a lot going on in The New Neighbor and it’s a much more complex novel than it at first appears. While I have to tread carefully around the issue of secret pasts and plot spoilers, I will mention Jennifer’s complicated relationship with university lecturer, Megan and her husband Sebastian. Jennifer begins taking her son, Milo to preschool and Milo’s friendship with a boy named Ben places Jennifer in the position of having to befriend Ben’s parents. At first her relationship is with Megan and through her, Jennifer gains a rather negative impression of Sebastian, and yet later, in a very cleverly constructed fashion, Jennifer has reason to reevaluate her impression of Sebastian and Megan’s position in the marriage. It’s one of those moments when we see Jennifer’s maturity, fed by bitter experience, of just how one spouse always generates a surge of sympathy from society while the ‘killjoy’ does not.
The fact that Margaret is a very well drawn character both works for and against the book as Jennifer and her story pale in comparison, and here are a few tart, choice quotes that bring Margaret to life:
What a pleasure it would be to really piss somebody off, just to see my existence fully register on someone else’s face.
You might imagine that being an old lady I like the cozy mysteries, but you’d be wrong. Spare me the cats and the knitting. It was Sue’s idea to start picking out books for me–perhaps she gets bored–and the first stack she presented me, two or three years ago, was full of such nonsense. I don’t need my murders made adorable. Death in a book is still only death in a book, but give me an author who doesn’t flinch. If a mystery doesn’t walk you up to the abyss before it rescues you, it’s a shallow form of comfort.
Here she’s referring to the Wordsworth poem:
The world I can more or less get away from, as I think I’ve proven, and there’s so much of nature around me I’d be hard pressed to long for more. Sometimes I wish the birds would shut the hell up. It’s not the world I can’t escape but my body. Not its demands so much at this stage, but its complaints and limitations. It’s resistance and pain.
The New Neighbor argues that, as outsiders, even living in the same house, we can never fully grasp the inner politics of a marriage, and we can never understand what it’s like to be another human being. In the Acknowledgements, the author notes that she wanted to write a novel based in the WWII experiences of her grandmother. And that’s the feeling I had when I read this novel–that the author had tapped some powerful real life experiences and that ultimately, this is Margaret’s story and not Jennifer’s. While this is not a perfect novel as its ending felt a little forced, I’ll check this author’s backlist.
I thought I had seen some things. I’d never seen anything like this. Our next patient required an amputation. The strangest part was not the cutting through but the moment when the limb actually came off. That first day I carried a whole arm away from the table. I held it by the elbow. The fingers on the hand were still flexed as though reaching for me, saying, Hold on a minute, wait, wait. The arm was surprisingly heavy. You don’t think about what an arm weighs when it’s still a part of the body. And then when it’s cut off, it’s waste. It gets burned with the rest of the waste.
Parts of your body can come off. Jennifer. You can have a hole in your back so big a man can out his fist inside it.
I hadn’t seen anything.
Later I’d see all of this, do all of this, many times, without sparing a thought to the oddity of it all. The time I’d moved into the extraordinary but hadn’t learned to live there. This wasn’t even a hospital as I’d ever known one, with hallways and wards and nurses in white, but a tent full of blood and guts and screaming. There should have been some other name for it, but we didn’t have one and so we applied the old one, and after a while when I thought “hospital” what I pictured was a tent or an abandoned schoolhouse, sawhorses for the stretchers and patients boys.