A matter of privilege

Jung Yun

THE WASHINGTON POST – “When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral.” So begins William Faulkner’s 1930 short story, A Rose for Miss Emily, a Southern Gothic classic set in a fictional Mississippi town where race, class and gender influence how the residents see and treat each other. Therese Anne Fowler’s new novel, A Good Neighbourhood, travels the same intersections as Faulkner’s story, but in present-day North Carolina. It also begins with the mention of a funeral and a mysterious omniscient narrator that refers to itself as “we”.

While the identity of Faulkner’s narrator is still the subject of scholarly debate, Fowler’s “we” quickly reveals itself as the residents of Oak Knoll, a diverse, leafy enclave in an unnamed suburb. Valerie Alston-Holt, a professor of forestry and ecology, is a long-time Oak Knoll resident, known for her book club meetings, beautiful gardens and principled concern for the environment. For eight long months, Valerie has been watching a developer build a new house next door, much larger and fancier than anything else in the neighbourhood. By the time the house is ready for occupancy, Valerie has begun to harbour some unflattering opinions about the type of people who would raze precious trees to make room for a pool.

Because race and class are critical lenses through which to view the events that unfold, it is necessary to note that Valerie is black and middle class. And her new neighbour, Brad Whitman, is white and wealthy – a “North Carolina-born boy who’d come from nothing and pulled himself up by the proverbial bootstraps”. Brad is the owner of a successful HVAC servicing company who tools around town in his Maserati, hits the links at an exclusive golf club and isn’t afraid to call up friends in high places when he needs a favour.

The cringeworthy first meeting between the Alston-Holts and the Whitmans is a sign of more trouble to come. Soon, the massive oak tree in Valerie’s backyard begins to deteriorate, which she suspects is because of root damage caused by the construction. Valerie’s emotional attachment to the tree compels her to file a lawsuit against the developer and Brad.

The conflict escalates with a budding romance between Juniper, Brad’s stepdaughter, and Xavier, a talented young musician headed off to conservatory in the fall. Valerie discourages her son from pursuing Juniper on the grounds that “she’s very, very white” – advice that he thinks is hypocritical given that his late father was white.

Valerie, however, isn’t optimistic about the reception to a young biracial man dating a rich white girl, particularly in the South. One of Xavier’s closest friends agrees, warning, “Stepdad wouldn’t be good with his pretty white property going off the reservation. You’re black, in case you haven’t noticed.”

Nine decades separate the publication of A Rose for Emily and A Good Neighbourhood, and yet the characters and their situations share much in common. The title character of Faulkner’s story is a white, upper-class woman whose controlling father prevents her from socialising with the town’s men. In A Good Neighbourhood, Juniper has taken a chastity vow at the local church and isn’t allowed to date, in large part because of pressure from her mother, Julia, who overparents in an attempt to steer her daughters away from her own past struggles. Brad jokingly refers to Julia as his “rescue wife” because he saved her from poverty, single parenthood and a succession of dead-end jobs working for men who sexually harassed her. The fact that Brad considers this a joke reveals a disturbing pattern of thinking about women and money that will escalate to startling ends.

In interviews, Fowler, who is white, has discussed her approach to writing from the viewpoints of characters whose racial identities differ from her own – a topic of debate that has recently stormed back into the news cycle. At first glance, A Good Neighbourhood shares some surface-level similarities with controversial books written by white authors about people of colour, addressing subjects that disproportionately affect and traumatise people of colour.

Execution, however, does matter. And what Fowler has executed is a book in which the black characters are thoughtfully rendered and essential to the story being told. Valerie and Xavier’s perspectives enrich and complicate a larger narrative about prejudice and how it can infiltrate even the most neighbourly and seemingly open-minded of communities. Despite these strengths, though, the pacing in the first two-thirds of the novel sometimes idles amid a high volume of backstory and flashbacks.

It’s possible that these chapters are a reflection of Fowler’s background as a writer of historical fiction, accustomed to drawing attention to formative life experiences that influence a character’s actions.

Whatever the motivation, the effort occasionally feels overdone. It also strings out the novel’s tension and prompts the need to manufacture intrigue in artificial ways, such as when the Greek chorus-like narrator ominously warns that “the time would come when we’d all know why Juniper Whitman sometimes felt such a keen need to be alone”.

Thankfully, the time does come, and the last third of the novel deftly ties numerous plot threads together while eliciting ever-increasing outrage. While it would be a shame to reveal the series of events that plunge the novel into its tragic third act, there’s no doubt that race, class and gender contribute to the numerous injustices that accumulate with speed and severity.

By the end, it’s clear that no matter how educated Xavier’s mother is, no matter how promising his future is, no matter how many years the residents of Oak Knoll have lived together in harmony, it is still possible for a privileged white newcomer to cast Xavier as a dangerous black man. This is where the similarities between “A Rose for Miss Emily” and “A Good Neighbourhood” end. While Faulkner’s story veers off into the traditional grotesquerie of Southern Gothic literature, Fowler’s culminates with injustices that are painfully easy to imagine because they continue to be a part of our contemporary lived experience.