Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Book Review: Perfectly Nice Neighbors

By Jami Denison

Good fences make good neighbors, so the saying goes. Kia Abdullah knows her allusions, and when she begins her new novel, Perfectly Nice Neighbors, with a broken fence, it’s clear that the two families sharing this fence are going to be broken as well. 

When Salma Khatun and her family move into the English estate of Blenheim, she’s eager for a fresh start. The pandemic led her husband Bil to lose his Pakistani restaurant, and their son Zain’s problems at school forced them to leave their old neighborhood. But the new start falters almost immediately. Zain’s “Black Lives Matter” banner is ripped out of the ground, and when Salma puts it inside the window, the window is painted over. Could the culprit be her next-door-neighbor, Tom? 

Tom, a white advertising executive, has a blond wife, Willa, and a partially deaf son, Jamie. He claims he’s not racist; he would disapprove of any neighbor who planted a banner (they’re prohibited in the neighborhood), parked too close to his driveway, or let the dog squeeze under his fence. Salma is haughty and needs to know her place. 

As the adults go at each other with an escalating series of tit-for-tat, Jamie and Zain form a tentative friendship. But as the stakes get higher, it’s clear that someone is going to get hurt.

Neighbors is an almost perfectly structured book, with a lean cast and a fast pace. Tom, Willa, Salma, and Zain are all (third person) point-of-view characters; Bil and Jamie seem to share a vulnerability that leaves them prey to bullies. 

Of all the characters, Salma is the most well-rounded. A teacher, she tries to understand the people around her, how the events in their lives have shaped them. Still, she admits that tall, blond Willa brings out a visceral reaction in her—she just doesn’t trust white women. Readers won’t trust her, either—newly pregnant after years of trying, Willa still smokes and drinks behind her husband’s back. More broadly, she’s a snob who thinks she married beneath herself, and her friends are snobs, too. 

Tom doesn’t come off too well, either. He admits to anger issues, and he thinks that should absolve him of racism because he’s an equal opportunity rage-a-holic. He rarely takes responsibility for his actions, always blaming others. Readers will not empathize with Tom or Willa, and their points-of-view seem to be included in order to ramp up the tension rather than to try to balance a story of two families. 

Abdullah’s previous book, Next of Kin, is daring in both plot and plot twists. Her trademark is to leave scenes early and let readers erroneously fill in the gaps. Neighbors is such a straightforward read that it seems impossible she’ll be able to do this. Don’t let your guard down! 

The book climaxes with a nice twist, but the ending is downright chilling. Abdullah begins the book referring to one cliché--Good fences make good neighbors—and ends with another one: What goes around comes around. 

Thanks to Putnam for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Kia Abdullah:

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