The Women’s Prize for Fiction just announced yesterday that it’ll be promoting all past winners throughout 2020, culminating in a public vote for a “winner of the winners” in honor of the prize’s 25th year! (And if you’re curious about the history of the prize, definitely check out Rachel’s massively impressive FULL LIST of every title ever nominated!) I’m not confident about being able to read all of the past winners before the vote- there’s already so much I want to read this year. But earlier this month I did cross another past winner off of my list: Suzanne Berne’s A Crime in the Neighborhood…. one of my least favorite winners so far!
This is part of a group buddy read, so I’ll link the other reviews as they appear- here are Sarah’s thoughts!
In the novel, adult Marsha looks back on the summer of 1972 (though some jacket copy erroneously touts that we’re looking at 1973). She was nine years old, living in a suburb of Washington D.C. Her parents were just splitting up, and a boy who lived nearby had been molested and killed in an empty lot behind the local shopping mall. Neighborhood residents could hardly believe it had happened on their safe little streets, and the possibility that the perpetrator might be one of the familiar faces living amongst them seemed absurd. But Marsha needed a project, so she took detailed notes of everything happening in the neighborhood that summer- until she believed she had found the murderer.
” ‘But I know he did it,’ I said, kicking the coffee table with my good foot.’ / ‘You don’t know,’ my mother said, folding her arms as she turned away and headed toward the staircase. ‘You only think you do.’ / ‘I do know.’ / ‘You only want to know. That’s all it is, Marsha,’ she said bitterly, turning back to me for a moment, her mouth a sharp line.”
A Crime in the Neighborhood wants so badly to be a mystery, though ultimately it fails to provide one. The reader may ask two questions based on the book’s premise- “Who killed Boyd?” is the first, and perhaps the one that mystery/thriller readers will be more interested in; unfortunately, it’s shunted aside early on as the focus shifts to Mr. Green, Marsha’s new neighbor, as her only suspect. In the end this is not actually the story of a mysterious murder, but an examination of Marsha’s nine year-old life and relationships, which limits how much of the murder case the reader is able to see. Despite the fact that Marsha is looking back on this event from many years later, we don’t see more of the murder investigation as a result of that distance- we only see Marsha realizing the extent of her own mistake. With the book framed this way, the second question of interest to the reader- “Did Mr. Green kill Boyd?” is answered early on, thanks to foreshadowing and a pervasive tone of regret in the narrative.
In place of a mystery, we’re left with a historical look at suburban America. Marsha’s is a “family neighborhood,” her parents’ divorce is a quiet scandal, gossip is rampant, and the children run free from block to block in the pre-cellphone era. Watergate is a hot topic. Marsha is a nosy kid often left out by her older siblings; a broken foot this summer also holds her back, leaving her home alone with her notebook in order to record everyone’s comings and goings. Surely this aspect of the book is likely to attract some readers, though personally I wasn’t very interested. Somehow (despite not having been alive to witness it firsthand) I seem to have acquainted myself well enough with the white suburban 70s well enough already that I just didn’t take much from this experience.
Furthermore, I couldn’t seem to invest in any of these characters. Marsha’s dad is a weak and absent man, her mother held just far enough out of sight that she seems aloof and unreachable. The older siblings are, frankly, irrelevant. Marsha doesn’t have any meaningful friendships with other neighborhood kids, and no one liked Boyd while he was alive. Mr. Green is so shy and awkward that he almost seems to be sabotaging his own social life. Marsha herself is not particularly likable; she sees everything (or so she thinks) but does very little of import, and what she does accomplish doesn’t encourage much sympathy from the reader.
“Once I have lied, I’ve propelled myself into a story that has its own momentum. It’s not that I convince myself that I’m telling the truth, it’s that the truth becomes flexible. Or rather, the truth appears to me as utterly relative, which is a frightening thought but also inevitable if you examine any truth long enough, even reassuring in a cold way.”
I wonder if this story might have been more interesting from Marsha’s mother’s perspective. For me the most interesting part of this book was the implication that in her father’s sudden absence, Marsha dislikes Mr. Green primarily because her mother takes an interest in him. She misses her dad, and she doesn’t want to lose her parents’ attention. Whereas it takes Marsha years to understand the causes and consequences of her actions over this summer, her mother would likely have had a more immediate grasp of and emotional response to all of these events. For her, it may have come down to a difficult choice of deciding whether to side with her daughter or speak up for an innocent stranger, which could have supplied the novel with a lot more tension than Marsha’s belated contrition. I would’ve loved to see more of the mother’s personality and opinions here.
” ‘Ask for what you want,’ my mother has always prodded me. ‘Make your case. If you don’t get what you want, then at least it won’t be because nobody knew what you wanted.’ “
But despite my general dissatisfaction, I must say I did find this book very readable. Even though I wasn’t excited about the plot, I had no trouble picking the book up and committing to each of the chapters. The writing is rather plain and preoccupied with quotable morals, but I found it to be an easy read, which certainly cannot be said for all of the Women’s Prize winners. If accessibility is important to you, and you’re more interested in 70’s suburbia and the particular blindness of childhood, you might find A Crime in the Neighborhood a better fit!
My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. This rating feels harsh, but I can’t help reading a prize-winning book with a more critical eye and higher expectations than I might otherwise. I didn’t hate this book and wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading it, but I did unfortunately find it disappointing on pretty much every level. Better luck with the next winner, I hope!
The Literary Elephant