Posts Tagged ‘Suzanne Berne’

The last of my kindle hospital reads was A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne – I was able to finish it at home though. Some of you may remember my reckless pledge to try and read all the books that had ever won or been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize – I now think it’s unlikely I will ever do it – but trying to tick off a few more. A Crime in the Neighbourhood won the Women’s Prize in 1999 before it was ever called the Women’s Prize.

“It’s funny, after all these years I’m still fascinated by how people hurt each other, why it happens, and by what makes people need to be cruel.”

I love a novel with a good child narrator and in this novel we see the world through the eyes of nine year old Marsha. The novel captures a time and place to absolute perfection – the stifling heat of a hot summer, the dizzying uncertainties of childhood. As an adult, Marsha can look back upon that summer of 1972 as a time when a terrible crime rocked the suburb where she lived, and how it seemed to be intertwined with the upheavals going on within her own family.

“In those days I still loved the quiet brick view of the Morrises’ and the Sperlings’ split-levels from our porch, with their box-shaped lawns and square-trimmed hedges. I loved the sight of metal trash cans lined up on the street every Wednesday morning. I loved neat leaf piles. I also loved the quickening smell of lighter fluid and charcoal on summer evenings, when every house became a campsite, the street became a river, and we ran through dark backyards to the sinuous burble of television sets. Then my father left, and a few months after that Boyd Ellison was killed behind the Spring Hill Mall, and what happened in our neighborhood began to seem less and less like what happened in neighborhoods.”

The novel opens with the crime of the title – it all happens ‘off camera’ so to speak – but we see how the discovery of the body of a twelve year old boy, raped and murdered sends shock waves through a community. Spring Hill is a nice suburb of Washington D C – and when the body of Boyd Arthur Ellison is found in the woods behind the mall – no one feels their children are safe. Spring Hill is a suburb of neat lawns, friendly neighbours popping in and out, children playing out until it’s dark, summer barbeques – everyone knows their neighbours. Berne depicts this world to absolute perfection; you can practically hear the lawn sprinklers and the distant murmur of children playing.

Marsha takes us back to the time before Boyd went missing – moving forward to those close, claustrophobic days and weeks after. She remembers how she saw the Ellison boy in the neighbourhood sometimes – how he wasn’t always a nice boy. This is a difficult period for Marsha and her family – her father has been having an affair with her mother’s sister, Aunt Ada, eventually leaving with her. Her home life is changing, her mother on the phone frequently, talking to her other sisters about Ada. Marsha is isolated from her older brother and sister – twins – who do everything together, keep secrets, shoplift, and make fun of her. Her mother starts selling magazine subscriptions over the phone from the kitchen table, going out in the mornings to look for a proper job. On the TV news, the Watergate scandal is being talked about – it seems as if everyone is crooked or secretive in some way – even the president.

“In a confused manner, I think I’d begun to connect my father’s leaving us with Boyd Ellison’s murder and even with whatever it was that had happened at Watergate. Although I couldn’t have explained it then, I believed that my father’s departure had deeply jarred the domestic order not just in our house, but in the neighborhood, and by extension the country, since in those days my neighborhood was my country. My father left to find himself, and a child got lost. That’s how it struck me.”

A new neighbour recently moved into the house next door – Mr Green – Marsha doesn’t like him and takes to keeping detailed notes in her notebook about his comings and goings. Her mother is friendly to Mr Green, even a little flirtatious – and Marsha doesn’t like that either. It does seem unusual for a single man to move into this community of families. Mr Green is not very sociable and he is regarded with some unspecified disquiet by his neighbours. In the days after the murder, the neighbourhood fathers begin nightly patrols of the area – Marsha watches them as she sits with her trusty notebook – imagining her own absent father as part of them. The fear of the adults is palpable – though Marsha’s mother is more concerned with the problems at the heart of her own life – everyone else it seems is talking about one thing. Berne shows us the effect of that gradual gossip and speculation that takes over at such times. Marsha, scribbling away in her notebook thinks that she can unravel the truth about what happened – little realising at just nine years old, what damage that might do.

A Crime in the Neighborhood was Suzanne Berne’s debut novel – a coming of age novel, that reveals what happens when fear takes over. There is a darkness to this richly evocative novel – and a sadness, a child all at sea as her world changes almost overnight. I’m not at all surprised this won the Women’s Prize (or the Orange Prize as it was then) I’m more surprised it has taken me so long to read it.

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