Sarah Langan (sarahlangan.com)
Titan Books (titanbooks.com)
The Wildes – Arlo and Gertie and their kids, Julia and Larry – are the latest addition to Maple Street, a quiet Garden City crescent bordering a six-acre park. They fit in reasonably well, the kids joining the Rat Pack – as the street’s children call themselves – and Gertie becoming friendly with Rhea Schroeder, her next door neighbour and self-proclaimed Queen of Maple Street. All is going well, until the residents of Maple Street throw a Fourth of July party to which the Wildes aren’t invited. Tensions are high when a sinkhole opens, swallowing one of the neighbours’ dogs. When 13-year-old Shelly Schroeder disappears into the sinkhole later that week, Rhea points the finger at the Wildes, accusing Arlo of the unspeakable. As the street tries to come to terms with the tragedy, battle lines are drawn; Maple Street is about to become a very unpleasant place to live.
It has been a long wait for a new Sarah Langan novel; her third novel, Audrey’s Door, was published in 2009. Now she’s back with a bang, with Good Neighbours taking a slightly different approach than we grew used to with her earlier novels. Still as dark – and still, quite frankly, very much on the frightening side – Langan’s fourth novel leaves the horror genre behind in favour of something a little more down-to-earth, a little more psychological in nature. The good news for long-time fans of this excellent author is that those twelve years were more than worth the wait.
Good Neighbours opens as the Wilde family discover they’ve been excluded from the neighbourhood Fourth of July barbecue. They’re a bunch of nice people: Arlo and Gertie more than willing to assume their omission from the invite list is a mistake rather than a deliberate move to exclude them; 12-year-old Julia is at that awkward stage that most tweens hit at some point in their development while 8-year-old Larry is introverted and quirky. They’re aware they don’t really fit in, they’re not like the rest of the people on Maple Street, but up to this point they thought they were doing okay. It doesn’t take long before it becomes clear that they haven’t been invited for a reason, even if they can’t work out what it is. Gertie’s friendship with Queen Bee Rhea seems to have hit the rocks while the Rat Pack, under the leadership of Rhea’s 13-year-old daughter Shelly, are outright hostile to the Wilde children. Arlo, once a famous rocker with one of those instantly-recognisable hits to his name, goes with the flow, doing his best to be a good husband and father.
It’s Shelly Shroeder’s fate that sets things in motion when she unwittingly disappears into the sinkhole that has opened in the large park facing Maple Street. An accusation levelled at Arlo shocks everyone at first – not least Arlo and his heavily-pregnant wife – but it isn’t long before others are jumping on the bandwagon as the street’s residents take sides in what is effectively a battle to the death between these two women, these two mothers. Good Neighbours is an examination of American life – and by extension society in general – through the lens of one small, well-to-do neighbourhood. It is, admittedly, a somewhat extreme view of humanity at its worst, but that’s what makes this so readable and so engaging: it’s just this side of plausible, and it is frightening in a way that supernatural horror could never hope to be.
Good Neighbours manages to examine a number of important themes as it glues the reader to the edge of their seat. Set a handful of years in the future, it’s ostensibly a story about the worsening climate crisis: the ever-expanding sinkhole is a symptom of the damage done to the planet, while the oppressive heat that Langan so effectively evokes may be at the root of why the residents of Maple Street seem to lose their minds during the course of the novel. More than that, Good Neighbours is about community in its many guises, from neighbourhood and friendship to family and, probably most importantly, motherhood. This is the story of two women who would do everything in their power to protect their chidren even, seemingly, at the cost of every other relationship they’re involved in. “Hell hath no fury,” and Rhea Shroeder and Gertie Wilde are the epitome of that simple truth, though different sides of the same coin: one out to destroy, the other out to protect.
Sarah Langan may have sidestepped slightly in terms of genre, but all the hallmarks of her wonderful early novels are here for all to see. Good Neighbours is a tense ride with more than a hint of dark comedy. It has been a long wait, but it is nothing short of fantastic to see this author back on our shelves. Good Neighbours is likely to open her writing up to a much wider audience than her previous books, and deservedly so. Ignore any comparisons you see made about this book: it’s like nothing you’ve read before and when you reach the end, you’ll want to go straight back to the start to savour every single word all over again.The perfect summer read, Good Neighbours is hopefully the beginning of a more regular publishing schedule for Langan, who remains one of the finest authors of “dark” fiction working today.