Tag Archives: neighbours from hell

Those People: Louise Candlish

“Was it any wonder he did what any other desperate person would do? Gather all the alcohol he could find in the house and drink every last drop of it.”

We’ve all had problems with neighbours at some point or another, so there are a lot of horror stories to share. Perhaps that’s what makes Louise Candlish’s novel Those People so readable. Once I picked this book up, it was hard to put it down.

Those people

The novel is set in a London suburb: Lowland Gardens. It’s just a short jog over to the horrors of the poverty stricken, crime-ridden Loughborough estate, so the people who live in Lowland Gardens, mainly young couples with children, are all too aware that crime lurks nearby. These houses have risen steeply in value over the last few years. People are proud to live there and everyone pulls together to keep up standards. Everyone that is … until Darren Booth and his wife Josie move in. …

While the cat’s away, the mouse was staging some sort of coup d’état.

Number 1 Lowlands Way, a semi-detached house, has stood empty for some time following the death of the owner. It’s of no small concern to the other residents of the street as the council recently tried a landgrab. Most of houses don’t have off street parking, and so parking space is an issue. Darren Booth moves into number 1 and immediately pisses everyone off.

The first clue that something was amiss that Friday evening was that the parking space outside his house was occupied by a filthy white Toyota so decrepit it was bordering on scrap. Certainly not the vehicle of anyone he knew on Lowland way.

First there are amateur repairs (which include sketchy scaffolding) taking place all hours of the day and night. Then there’s the heavy metal rock music played in the wee hours. Then if there wasn’t already too much to tolerate, Darren brings his used car business to the estate and starts flogging cars in the once posh neighbourhood.

All of this could almost be funny. There are several snobby people in the neighbourhood, and the snob squad is led by Naomi Morgan one of the estate’s Great Organisers. Naomi is one of those ultra efficient, brisk, perfect women whose word is Law. Several of the neighbours attempt remonstrating with Darren; his music for example has made it impossible for the baby on the other side of the semi-detached wall to sleep, and that’s when Darren’s nastiness surfaces. He drives the neighbours crazy and while the horrified neighbours band together to complain to various official/legal channels, there is basically nothing they can do but live with the situation as all legal channels move as fast as frozen molasses.

The situation is a powder keg, and so inevitably things explode: Naomi and her much-over shadowed sister-in-law Tess created Play-out Sundays, so on Sundays the street is closed off and the children play outside. Everyone goes along with the plan and residents park on another street. But Darren Booth doesn’t comply with the established clan culture, and this leads to the first disaster.

I got to a certain point in the book, and then I realised that there was a lot more afoot. The plot begins with witness and neighbour statements which are taken by police after a horrendous accident takes place. There was still a good portion left of the book, and so I knew things were not as simple as they initially appeared.

Author Louise Candlish creates incredible tension between the characters. Events escalate rapidly and people find themselves in unexpected positions, trying to find solutions to an untenable situation. She also shows how Darren is a catalyst for other events that occur which cause the rot lurking beneath this posh neighborhood to emerge. Wives look to their husbands to ‘take care of things’ and then despise them when they can’t (legally). Naomi and Ralph have had the perfect life (which they like to flaunt through their constant suggestions for how others can improve their lives: “double glazing!!” ). Naomi’s domineering character emerges and she’s so used to getting her own way, that when she doesn’t, her rather off-putting nature becomes more apparent. And then there’s poor Sissy who is paying her mortgage by turning her home into a B&B (probably not the best idea..) and the B&B happens to right opposite Darren’s house… well there goes the neighbourhood.

At first opposition to Darren seems rooted in class, and class plays an enormous role in this tale. Darren doesn’t ‘fit’– he doesn’t ‘look’ as though he’s a homeowner, so Naomi’s (domestically trained) husband, Ralph, assumes that Darren is some cheapo worker employed by Number 1’s new owner. As the story develops though, it’s clear that while class may have sparked, and fueled divisions, Darren is a nasty person.

Reading the book made me think about how we so often just comply politely. Perhaps we don’t have enough skin in the game to thwart others or perhaps the stakes just aren’t worth it, but Darren senses he’s not welcome and then figuratively gives everyone the finger.

The plot wobbled a bit at the end, but for its genre, Those People is very well-done. While this may seem like a beach read, Those People tackles a lot of moral questions regarding our obligations to others. The neighbors, already subject to considerable marital/financial/social stress join together to band against Darren, but they are all self-interested at heart. Social media, and texts play a role as does surveillance–all ways for people to get themselves in trouble. It’s a good reminder that casual comments that may have no sinister meaning can quickly become incriminating under the right set of circumstances.

Review copy

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Fear: Dirk Kurbjuweit

German Literature Month 2017

We always live at least two lives, especially after a big decision: the life we decided on and the life we decided against.”

Yes! It’s German Literature Month, and I may be off to a slow start, but at least it’s a good start. My first pick for this month is Dirk Kurbjuweit’s novel Fear, and while this novel can be classified as crime, it’s much more than that.

The novel opens with our narrator, Randolph Tiefenthaler, a successful married architect in his 40s, visiting his 78 year-old father in prison. Randolph’s father, a man with no prior history of crime, is incarcerated for manslaughter. He’s a model prisoner, and the guards like him. What drove this elderly man to kill another human being? What is the backstory?

The rest of the novel unfolds as Randolph, with more than a little guilt, tells of the events surrounding his father’s incarceration. The Thiefenthalers, Randolph, Rebecca and their two children, Paul and Fay moved to a beautiful apartment in a pleasant middle class neighbourhood. There their formerly peaceful life is thrown into chaos thanks to their basement neighbour, Dieter Tiberius, an overweight, unemployed, chronically institutionalized man who is the product of childhood abuse. The situation between Dieter and the Thiefenthalers becomes intolerable, and something is going to explode: Randolph acknowledges: “we thought, said and did a great deal that contradicted the image we had of ourselves, and what I call our enlightened middle-class values.”

At first Dieter seems to be a pleasant, friendly man, but as he becomes more disinhibited around the Thiefenthalers, he becomes obsessed with Rebecca; he leaves her love letters and poems, and there’s evidence (thanks to an abandoned ladder) that he spies on the family in their most secret moments.

Fear

Things escalate, however, when Dieter starts accusing the Thiefenthalers of sexually abusing their children which results in repeated visits from the police. Randolph and Rebecca desperately seek police protection only to be told there is no case, so they turn to legal means which prove to be equally useless.  They find themselves behaving stiffly in the face of accusations, wondering how to act with their children. Even discussing the situation with friends fails to draw sympathy.

Even before Rebecca had finished talking, I saw her school friend’s wife purse her lips. Was it not possible, she asked eventually, that Dieter Tiberius was just a victim? After all, he’d grown up a ward of the state, and we all knew what went on in children’s homes.

Underneath this drama, however, there are undercurrents. Randolph is experiencing some sort of need to distance himself from his wife and family, and he has to curb his behaviour due to his wife’s fear of being alone. Randolph also reminisces about his childhood, his father’s love of guns, and how he disliked weapons, even becoming a pacifist.

Fear explores several issues such as the limitations of law though various encounters with several institutions. Also under scrutiny is the idea of masculinity. Dieter Tiberius is seen as the victim, while Randolph suffers comments from his brother and others about being ‘less than a man’ for not taking matters into his own hands and beating the shit out of Dieter. It’s interesting that no one expects Rebecca to find a solution: everything rests on Randolph’s masculinity. Also, I’m going to add that the book takes a look at telescopic empathy. When reading the newspaper, it’s easy to sympathise with someone who’s spent a lifetime in various institutions and now is basically non functional, but it’s an entirely different thing to have to deal with someone who’s severely damaged when they live in the basement flat.

Anyone who has ever known the frustration of trying to get legal help for a slippery situation will identify with Randolph’s feelings of helplessness as he tries, repeatedly, to get help with this untenable situation. As he deals with the police and social workers, Randolph finds his faith in the ‘system,’ and the Rule of Law slipping. All of the things Randolph believed in, the person he thought he was, slip away.

The loser is strong because he has nothing left to lose. People like me, apparently,  life’s winners, are weak because they have so much they want to hang on to. The upwardly mobile are particularly afraid. We are afraid of losing what we have attained, because it is not secure. neither morally nor financially.

Fear is a gripping read. The ending went on a bit too long IMO (quit while you’re ahead,) but that’s the only criticism I have. Finally a word on the cover: the novel has a way of pulling the reader into the drama here, so that we find ourselves what we would have done in Randolph’s shoes. Similarly, the cover hints of being drawn, step by step, into a claustrophobic nightmare of paranoia and fear.

Review copy

Translated by Imogen Taylor

 

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Filed under Fiction, Kurbjuweit Dirk