A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne
Categories: Literary Fiction, Mystery
First Publication Date: December 1st 1991
Synopsis: An auspicious debut novel by a young writer who will remind readers of Anne Lamott and Anne Tyler” A Crime in the Neighborhood” centers on a headline event — the molestation and murder of a twelve-year-old boy in a Washington, D.C., suburb. At the time of the murder, 1973, Marsha was nine years old and as an adult she still remembers that summer as a time when murder and her own family’s upheaval were intertwined. Everyone, it seemed to Marsha at the time, was committing crimes. Her father deserted his family to take up with her mother’s younger sister. Her teenage brother and sister were smoking and shoplifting, and her mother was “flirting” with Mr. Green, the new next-door neighbor. Even the president of the United States seemed to be a crook. But it is Marsha’s own suspicions about who committed this crime that has the town up in arms and reveals what happens when fear runs wild.
MILD SPOILERS AHEAD
I read this together with a few other bloggers, as we attempt to read all the Women’s Prize for Fiction winners – Sarah and Emily have brilliant reviews about this book and you should definitely check them out!
This book was not what I expected: from the title and the synopsis I assumed it would be a whodunit and from some of the ratings I saw from people I trust, a trashy one indeed. First of all, don’t come to this book expecting it to be about the actual crime the book opens with: the rape and murder of a twelve-year-old boy, which the main character becomes increasingly convinced was committed by someone she knows. This is more a reflection on crime, cruelty and fear, and the main character, Marsha, watches it all happen in front of her as she carefully takes notes on everyone’s whereabouts, listens to conversations and watches her neighbors. Frankly, she was plain creepy and I disliked her a lot.
Marsha is nine-years-old, and the story is told from a first-person perspective by the older Marsha, who’s thinking about all the things that happened in her old neighborhood in 1972, the year her father left his family and ran away with her aunt. This narration style did not work for me and it took a long time to get used to it: since it’s told in first person by an older Marsha, the writing is serious, older, reflective and comes off as cruel and mean when describing the things her nine-year-old self did back then. Not that little Marsha starts off particularly cruel herself, but the way her voice sounds so adult while committing more-or-less innocents transgressions makes all her actions sound more deliberate. I had to constantly keep in mind this is supposed to be a child. Apart from that, the beginning is so slow it feels nearly sleepy (perhaps to reflect the neighborhood itself?).
I did not like nor dislike this novel. I liked the writing from the second half on, and I like the exploration of fear and how easily it turns to cruelty. The theme is very interesting to me and reminded me of another Women’s Prize for Fiction winner, The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht (who executed this theme marvelously). I did not like any of the characters, although I sympathized with Marsha’s mom, and I don’t think the book’s intention is that you do. I did find their descriptions oddly dark and sexual for a child to say (do kids REALLY think of nipples all that much? Do they really think their father left become their mother had a scar on her belly?). The writing would have worked better for an adult narrator in my opinion, and a creepy one, at that. As it was, the general effect of the book was a bit cheapened by all the scandalous things people said and did, especially Marsha’s friend who plays a very disturbing game with her dolls (please someone call child services). It felt sensational and dark for no good reason except shocking the reader and preparing Marsha to accuse Mr. Green of terrible things she would not have thought of otherwise. This could have been achieved, in my opinion, without the whole doll play situation.
There is also an attempt of showing that adult Marsha is a better person and learned lessons with all that happened etc., but I am not ready to believe that at all and would much rather think that the author intended to create a psychopath character – she does not show any significant remorse at all, only emptily saying from time to time that she did something she “regretted”. I just can’t see her being a “normal” person who did something awful when she was a kid: her cold narration of the events convinced me otherwise.
I picked this up as part of my goal to read (almost) all the winners of the Women’s Prize for Fiction (called Orange Prize for Fiction back then), and it certainly will not feature among my favorites, but it is a book that I did not detest (which was my expectation), so I suppose this is a net profit. While I appreciate the themes of the book and did not hate the writing style, it just did not work for me with a strange mix of child/adult narrator or the sensationalist way things developed. It feels to me that I would have loved this book if it had been written by someone else, or at least in third person.