THE GOOD NEIGHBOURS by Nina Allan (BOOK REVIEW)
“Grandma says all fairy mythology comes from the same root, like religion. That it’s one big idea that gets pulled in different directions depending on where it ends up and who’s telling the story. The central beliefs never change, though. She says there’s a pattern at the heart of things, a hidden logic we don’t understand yet and maybe never will.”
“How could something that did not exist, still exist? Was the angle between reality and illusion really so small?”
Over the course of her previous novels, novellas and short stories, Nina Allan has established herself as one of the UK’s most talented authors, operating with ease across genre boundaries and with an unmatched talent for prose. Her fourth novel The Good Neighbours (2021) is another triumph. Showcasing Allan’s ability to craft characters with depth and passion, as well as her commitment to honing her craft and embracing new challenges, the novel is arguably her finest achievement yet. The Good Neighbours effortlessly melds crime and detective fiction with fairy mythology, troubled Victorian painter Richard Dadd, non-Euclidian geometry and quantum mechanics to create a beguiling exploration of the subjective universes we inhabit. The novel is anchored by Allan’s glorious prose, and her knack of capturing troubled yet compelling characters in extraordinary sympathy and detail. Haunting and uncanny, yet always within reach of our recognisable everyday reality, The Good Neighbours joins such immortal books as Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Kingdoms Of Elfin (1977) and John Crowley’s Little, Big (1981) in the ranks of great fairy literature.
Cath returns to the Isle of Bute, where she grew up, and her best friend Shirley Craigie and her family were brutally murdered. Everyone suspects John Craigie, Shirley’s aggressive and antisocial father, who died crashing his car driving away from the house where his family was killed. But Cath is no longer so sure. Returning to the Craigie house to photograph it as part of her ongoing art project about murder houses, Cath meets Alice, who has moved to the island to recover from a breakdown. The two of them grow closer as they look into the circumstances of Shirley’s murder, but their investigation begins to throw up increasingly strange questions. John Craigie was a brilliant carpenter with a secret fear of fairies, and an obsession with fairy painter Richard Dadd, who himself suffered from mental illness and murdered his father. Cath and Alice begin to suspect that the open and shut case of the Craigie familicide might be linked to something sinister outside of the human world.
The Good Neighbours is structured like a crime novel, with the mystery of the Craigie family murder at its heart. But the novel veers closer to Fantasy and horror as it progresses, as the fairy world subtly but inexorably encroaches on our recognisable everyday world. The novel draws much from the life of Richard Dadd, whose unfinished masterpiece The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke forms a central image. Dadd’s sinister masterpiece was painted while he was held at the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum of the Bethlehem Royal Hospital for the murder of his father, and its sinister and grotesque fairies hark back to the ambivalent creatures of folklore rather than the twee sanitised fairies of much Victorian imagination. John Craigie, as a child, was beaten by his father and sought refuge in the fairy stories told by his grandmother. Is his obsession with fairies and his conviction that he can see them a retreat from reality, a manifestation of the same paranoid schizophrenia suffered by Dadd, or is he in touch with another world? Allan’s novel refuses to provide an easy answer. The novel instead weaves an entrancing web, marking out the connections between fairyland, multiple universe theory, the language of mathematics and the point where obsessive focus on one’s art tips over into madness. The novel surreptitiously mimics the siren call of fairyland, the black hole of obsession that threatens to swallow its characters whole.
Allan’s character work is, as ever, complex and vividly imagined. The sections in the novel which let us in to John Craigie’s head are both compelling and profoundly disturbing. Allan manages to make him a sympathetic character whilst never letting him off the hook for his violence and unpleasantness. Cath herself is a compelling lead, her photography and her fixation on being a detective and solving the mystery of Shirley’s death reflecting her anxieties about being an observer in everyone else’s life. The novel is centred on Cath’s two relationships, her friendship with Shirley and her friendship and close romantic attraction to Alice. Crucially, The Good Neighbours makes Shirley and her murdered mother Susan well rounded and heavily present characters, rather than reducing them to the status of victims with no agency. Cath learns over the course of the novel that rather than being merely this subdued, harried woman she remembers from her childhood, Susan was intelligent and perceptive, and had a secret life outside of her domineering and abusive husband. Shirley’s presence is felt strongly throughout the novel, as Cath reflects on their tumultuous friendship, and Shirley’s voice acts as Cath’s inner monologue and guide, the memory of her friend helping her untangle the puzzles she faces.
The Good Neighbours shares with Allan’s other novels her interest in peeling back the corners of our recognisable reality, and the way that storytelling is uniquely equipped to help us do this. Now that the Craigies are dead, Cath can never know the truth of what went on in their private lives, much as she cannot know Alice and her relationship with her husband. But the act of investigating the crime, going back over the individual pieces and trying to order them in a way that makes narrative sense, allows her to begin to understand. Cath reflects on how the art of storytelling is similar to constructing the “murder walls” of photographs and evidence that detectives use to solve mysteries on TV shows:
“This should have been confusing but it wasn’t. This is how stories should be told because this is how they are, Cath thought. Like scraps of memories scribbled down on to paper before they disappear.
Or like photographs, maybe. A bunch of old snapshots found in a drawer. Like on your murder wall.”
Allan’s novels thrive on the juxtaposition of memories, scraps of articles, pieces of fairytales or folklore, differing or contradicting viewpoints. From this juxtaposition comes the narrative thread, the mosaic pieces feeding off and recontextualising each other to make sense. Similarly, while we may never be able to truly know what goes on in other people’s heads, the stories we tell and the memories we share perhaps allow us to build up a picture that is close to the truth. This is what great fiction, and in particular Allan’s fiction does – use stories to tell us the truth. Long may Allan’s stories continue to do so.