Orange Prize Challenge #2: “A Crime in the Neighborhood”

Courtesy of Wikipedia

I’ve finished my second book in the Orange Prize challenge — Suzanne Berne‘s “A Crime in the Neighborhood” — and I can say I’m much happier with this second winner than the last one. Berne’s novel won the award in 1999, beating out famous authors like Toni Morrison and future winner of 2009 Barbara Kingsolver. ‘Crime’ was her first novel, and she has since written two more novels and a biography of her grandmother published last year.

The novel recounts Marsha’s summer after her parents’ separation in the ’70s; that same summer a young boy is murdered. As she copes with the dissolution of her family, she lashes out at Mr. Green, an awkward bachelor living next door who seems to take a liking to Lois, the girl’s mother.

I thought there were a lot of beautiful moments in the novel, and though it reminded me a lot of Alice Sebold‘s “The Lovely Bones” (though this came first) in its suburban, ’70s setting, I was attached to the story from the beginning. The title is misleading, and though Berne opens the novel with the death of the young boy, the “crime” isn’t necessarily his death. There are two things Berne could be referring to: the dissolution of her parents’ marriage in a time when divorce was just becoming acceptable and the subsequent abandonment by her father, or her later actions towards Mr. Green in which she accuses him of being a murderer (with some basis, but mostly falsehoods).

What I felt like the book was really about is how the American nuclear family slowly began to fall apart (and is still today, being replaced by many alternatives), and how Marsha, as a young girl, feels the need to lash out against those who represent something other than that unit. As she tries to come to terms with the fact that her family is no longer what she thought it was, accusing Mr. Green of being a murderer simply because he’s a bachelor that lives alone and keeps to himself is the only way she knows to keep the status quo going, because she has no power over her parents’ marriage in her own family.

Some of the beautiful moments that I spoke of above include Lois’s reaction to her son saying he would’ve just beat up the murderer; she replies something along the lines of, “No one can be a hero ahead of time.” The mother, probably the most empathetic character in the novel, goes over to sit with Mr. Green for the night when no one shows up for his barbecue later on in the book. It’s small events like these that make the reader perk up and take notice, even as the book trots along at a nice little pace towards the inevitable, tragic conclusion. And even though Marsha lays it out pretty early on what’s going to happen, you still want to hear her say the irreversible words, because you know that as the narrator tells the story from an adult’s point-of-view, there’s still some part of her trying to figure out her childhood and what went wrong, as we all sometimes stop and do.

Now it’s on to 2000 winner “We Lived in Modern Times” by Linda Grant, but not before I take one or two detours into summer reading or books that came out recently. I’ll be posting reviews of those within the next couple of days. Ciao!

A Crime in the Neighborhood – B+



  1. Great review! I haven’t read this one yet – glad it was a better selection for you! =)

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