The New Neighbor
By Leah Stewart
In this thoughtful psychological drama, Leah Stewart examines the lives of two women who share at least one thing in common, despite the great disparity in their ages: both harbor a similar dark secret in their pasts, one that has affected how they live and their personalities. Over the course of the novel, the secrets emerge and the women react in very similar fashion that will leave readers who require neat resolution dissatisfied. Though marketed as a thriller, readers will enjoy the novel more if they disabuse themselves of that notion on page one and read it more as a melodrama with two mysteries intertwined. If Stewart’s novel has a message, it’s that the past is forever, and that no matter how much and far you flee it or how much life you toss on top of it, it remains to haunt you awake and asleep.
The setting is Sewanee, Tennessee, home of The University of the South, on the Cumberland Plateau, an area of outcroppings and bluffs that make appearances in the novel. Margaret Riley is ninety-one, a retired nurse and vp of nursing at a hospital. As a young woman, she served as a nurse in WWII, traveling with the troops from Normandy to Germany, witnessing and treating much carnage along the way. She also formed a strong bond of friendship that may have had more emotionality on her part than with the target of her caring, Kay. Therein lies the secret she has kept all these years. Considering her calling in life, it proves very dark indeed, and, no, you’ve not guessed it.
Jennifer Young is, yes, young by comparison, with a toddler son, Milo. She turns up in town one day and rents the house across the pond from Margaret’s. From the time we first meet Jennifer, we know she is fleeing something in her past, her dark secret that proves multifaceted, encompassing her family, of which there is more than just Milo and herself.
Margaret, never married and pretty much cut off from her family, except for one niece she says she likes, lives a life of isolation. She occupies herself with murder mysteries and derives her small pleasures from figuring out the killer ahead of the end. When she sees the new neighbor for the first time from her deck across the pond with Jennifer on her own deck, she senses something about the woman and sets out learning all she can about the woman’s past. In the process of extracting information from Jennifer and delving into her past in other ways, Margaret enlists her to write down the story of her own life as a wartime nurse. And it’s here where Margaret reveals her own secret while interfering in Jennifer’s life, with traumatic consequences.
To say more would reveal the secrets that drive the novel along, the propulsion being your curiosity about what each hides, if they reveal themselves, and what will happen when they do. Here, let’s add that if you are the type who must like a character to engage in a novel, you might want to pass up this one. You certainly will want to like Jennifer and Margaret. However, Jennifer is too tightly wound up in her own misery and Margaret is anything but the imagined sweet little old lady.
Finally, around the halfway point, you might imagine yourself picking up on an obliquely placed literary reference to none other than Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and recalling the final whispered exclamation of Kurtz, “The horror! The horror!” And then you might contemplate the two women’s different attitudes to what they did and what they are hiding. Each you’ll find horrible in its own way. w/c