Fear begets worry. Worry begets doubt. Doubt begets anxiety. Anxiety begets paranoia.
Low self-esteem begets self-hatred. Self-hatred begets depression. Depression begets self-pity.
Enemy-centered begets hate. Hate begets anger. Anger begets rage. Rage begets revenge. Revenge begets murderous spirit.
A nation divided against itself will surely fall. And a man's enemies will be those . . . of his own household.
On the pages of this eerily alarming and slow boiling psychological suspense, the reader becomes both judge and jury as the tale's two twenty-eight-year-old star witnesses take the proverbial stand to testify inside the courtroom of its covers. Here, we meet our duo of top-billed defendants, Mr. Jack Walsh and Ms. Sydney Baker, as they each render their own individual statements detailing the London fog of evil that commenced to progressively encounter their lives only a short time after moving into Sydney's—not Jack's but Sydney's—dream home.
Jack is sworn in first and gives a rather choppy description of what exactly led up to the death of Sydney's and his next door neighbor, the detested Sean Payne. Payne is, or rather was, the despicable and savagely abusive father of Elsie Payne, the young girl who would thrown herself in front of the speeding train—right before Sydney's eyes.
It all began after Jack and Sydney purchased the house, which they suspiciously won at a bargain price, outbidding even all of those other couples laden with greater financial means. While not Jack's immediate favorite, the old house—sold to the young partners by an elderly gentleman, one Patrick Bernard Winters—is infused with an uncanny and cold inner spirit that betrays its warm and welcoming physical beauty. And not long after they move in, Jack and Sydney soon begin to detect that smell, a distinctive aroma that only intensifies in pungency as the days wear on.
Once that smell becomes to annoying to further tolerate, Jack goes on to conduct a thorough investigation into the source of the strange odor, ultimately locating the culprit in Sydney's and his lonesome attic: a dead, rotting cat—with its legs broken. Of course, the findings are enough to make Jack's blood run arctic. Because for one, all of the attic's windows were sealed shut by the home's previous owner. So how on earth did the cat manage to penetrate the attic space in the first place? For such is a task deemed virtually impossible—at least by Jack's logic.
What's more, the slightly passive leading man also finds some other items laying only a breath away from the cat's decaying carcass: a shoe box filled with a variety of knick knacks, including a doll's head, that more than likely would have been those personal effects of a little girl; however, there is only one problem. The elderly Patrick Bernard Winters—who, by the way, quickly sold his house (to Jack and Sydney) in order to flee to Perth, Australia and into the arms of a woman he met on the Internet—didn't have any children . . . or grandchildren. And this fact leads Jack to suspect what? Well, he doesn't really know what. He certaintly doesn't tell Sydney about any of it, especially not about the dead cat with its legs broken, as that one detail alone would freak her out henceforth.
Even so, his perplexing discoveries—disgusting and otherwise—start to hungrily gnaw at Jack's mind. And he is intent on unraveling the creepy mystery behind them.
Emotionally broken as they come, Sydney "Syd" Baker is the product of a tumultous upbringing. Having her entire body decorated in a bloody mélange of enraged scars, Sydney is still battling with a myriad of demons—including the one of drug abuse—from her nightmarish past when she meets her would-be beau Jack Walsh for the first—and somewhat awkward—time at a social workers conference. The emotionally wrecked couple soon fall head over heels in true love, and after only three months of dating, are already making plans to move in together.
Neither of them wants to meet the other's family. And that joint understanding is just fine with Sydney—whose father had been her hater, her batterer, and her scoffer for the most part of her childhood into her adolescence anyway. Sydney was a phenomenally disdained and abused child in the domestic setting: her father was her homegrown terrorist, whilst her mother stood only for submissive cowardice. And through it all, her little sister Jessica could be nothing more than an eyewitness. That is, until she died—compliments of suicide.
This is why Sydney could so relate to the Benson & Hedges smoking Elsie Payne, even finding camaraderie with the thirteen year-old.
. . . A very peculiar camaraderie.
Elsie Payne is Sydney Baker's second chance to vindicate herself. Even from the very first day that her eyes rested themselves upon the little girl from across the housing row, Sydney has felt an instant connection to Elsie. Especially because of Jessica. Sydney's kid sister, the late Jessica.
Full of painful regret and self-blame about Jessica's premature demise, Sydney can spot one of her own maltreated kind in the young Elsie, and soon forms a trusting bond of friendship with the forever sad, miserable, and hopeless child—who is a seemingly ironic carbon copy of Jessica. And now, knowing of Elsie's horrifying quandary at the heavy, harm-inflicting hands of the child's angry and abusive father Sean, Sydney knows that she has to save Elsie for the sake of saving her former self . . . and her dead sister, Jessica. And once Sydney makes it up in her mind to rescue the helpless Elsie from her unhinged reality, nothing can prevent her doing so. She even recruits Jack to help her—by way of involving child services.
But the rabbit hole leading down the Hadean portal that is Elsie's life goes seabed deep. And once Sydney and Jack dive into the turbulent rapids, neither is to resurface without mangle—be it spiritually . . . or physically.
Desperately treading many a tempestuous wave in her new role as savior, Sydney, while waiting to board the train for work on one fateful morning, can only watch in blood-curdling horror as young Elsie Payne ever so casually steps off the train platform and directly into the oncoming path of a speeding locomotive.
On impact, everything literally goes pitch black.
. . . Even the hearts of men.
Just when Jack and Sydney thought the torments of their past dead lives had plummeted into eternity's abyss, the same have reemerged from the billowing smoke of eradication to hunt down their former acquaintances through the most relentless of pursuits. For they are come only to steal and to kill and to thoroughly destroy. And with these old foes settled in for the fleshly score, the heinous murder of one Sean Payne is to be the least of Jack Walsh and Sydney Baker's concerns.
That is, until they both become the prime suspects.
Although Jack Walsh and Sydney Baker carry the magnitude of this shadowy psychological suspense with their tremendously stellar performances, the two stars also share the fictional spotlight with a compact—though indelible—company of bit players who each annex even more profundity to the twisty, turny script in his and her own right.
Incidentally, these would include Bartol "Bart" Novak, Jack's best friend and a fellow social worker with whom Jack is convinced Sydney is having an affair; Sabeen, Ali, Amira, Hakim, and Kalila, a family of legal (and illegal) Iraqi refugees who are about to be evicted from Sabeen's small bedsit for overcrowding and squatting—until Jack brazenly intervenes on their behalf; Karen Leigh, the attractive redhead of a Detective Inspector who enters the plot to investigate Jack and Sydney for the implacable murder of Sean Payne; DC Grainger, this novel's Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Karen Leigh's professional colleague; and Evan Cohen, the corrupt, avaricious, deceitful, and lowdown estate agent from whom Jack and Sydney purchase their new house of ill repute.
Mr. and Mrs. Walsh, and Mr. and Mrs. Robinson—Jack's parents and Sydney's parents, respectively—also feature in speaking roles, but only one quarter of them is deserving enough to have been appointed a name: Penelope, Jack's mother.
Immediately recognizing the tell-tale symptoms of feeling emotionally drained, tensely frustrated, and stressfully aggravated, it was my determination that Simon Lelic's The New Neighbors was at first suffering from "psychosomatic cancer," what considering the rather feverishly slow pace at which the complex storyline moved in its earlier stages. And with all due respect, constantly putting the narrative down in order to give it a rest became quite an unchallenging activity for my reader.
Notwithstanding, said effort would—in its own sweet time—redeem itself admirably.
Proven benign, the annoying literary tumor that plagued this novel at the outset soon dissipates. And the storyline, originally frail and weak in structure, suddenly gains a few extra pounds of muscled momentum, and comes out swinging on the reader like an undisputed heavyweight champion—determined to land as many compensatory uppercuts on the same as it possibly can.
True to its rendition, the grand illusion of this written account's conclusion is somewhat reminiscent of the illustrious Alfred Hitchcock and his ingenious brand of chilling suspense. Of course, I wouldn't go sar far as to declare it the Rear Window of mystery thriller fiction, but one thing is certainly clear, and that is that the effort is heavily influenced by those timeless filmworks of the storied Master. And because of the contents of its Hitchcockian character, The New Neighbors—in the end—managed to stave off what would have perhaps been a much lower rating.
If truth be told, this literary puzzle of a two-part psychological thriller greatly impressed me in its final rounds, cleverly pinning me against the ropes as it pummeled away at my psyche with blow after blow of page-turning and pulse-palpitating perturbation.
Yes, in the end, Simon Lelic's The New Neighbors got medieval on yours truly. And there is no singular devotee of its respective genre to whom I would not inordinately recommend it. However slow its dreadfully teasing start, the London-set fiction comes alive remarkably after awhile, commanding its own dignity, and proudly shutting down the would-be critical naysayers of mind.
As I tip my cloché to the narrative, I stand both humbly . . . and mumbly corrected.
• It is my kindly pleasure to thank Berkley Publishing, as well as NetGalley, for the advanced review copy (ARC) of The New Neighbors in exchange for my honest review.
Analysis of The New Neighbors by Simon Lelic is courtesy of Reviews by Cat Ellington: https://catellingtonblog.wordpress.com
Date of Review: Friday, April 6, 2018