In my childhood, my family lived in a commune of 20 identical yellow houses on the outskirts of Copenhagen. They dined six days a week in the “common house”. The neighbors also shared maintenance tasks, prepared after-school snacks, ran a store without a manager, and celebrated most parties together. We were the only non-Danes in the commune, and our arrival was both exciting and disconcerting for the group. We made too much noise, our house was too bright, we had family and friends visiting from Turkey for months. But we were also the most popular cooks in the commune, spending out of pocket, beyond dinner budgets, to make roast lamb and feta pies. The commune was an experiment in living together, as equals, although for me it was also an education in all the ways we were different.
I am fascinated by the lives that follow each other very close. What leads me to contemplate life as a fictional model is the intersection of intimacy and distance, the ways in which lives interact, entangle or overcome each other. The neighbors offer a unique point of view in fiction, because they witness much of the life on the surface but can be blind to the depths. The friendship of the neighbors also interests me: the neighbors must maintain a delicate balance of courtesy for all the coexistence that lies ahead.
In my novel White on White, the painter Agnes begins to tell parts of her life story to the art history student who rents the flat below her studio. At first, the student is fascinated by Agnes and eager for her friendship, but as Agnes becomes unhinged, the student chooses the anonymity of being a neighbor, choosing to avoid emotional responsibility.
The following books investigate lives in close proximity, both familiar and distant.
one. the magic mountain for Thomas Manntranslated by John e. Forest
Hans Castorp arrives at a sanatorium to visit his cousin and ends up staying for a long time. This is a book about time and death, but it is told through interactions with sanatorium patients over dinner and lunch talks. They are all sick, and like good neighbors, they all avoid the subject. But the shared fate of the residents creates an unspoken bond and a powerful backdrop for the novel.
two. A house in Norway for Vigdis Hjorthtranslated by charlotte barlund
Alma, a tapestry artist, rents the annex of her house to a Polish family, whose lives she witnesses from her own window for six years. The novel’s premise puts the artist’s liberal views into practice. Alma has always prided herself on her progressive values, but she discovers, as soon as the Polish family moves in, that she is not as tolerant as she thought. This is a brilliant book about immigration, what it means to live together, and the fragile ideals of the European project.
3. Scorpion by Natalie Bakopoulos
This atmospheric novel epitomizes the intimate distance of being a neighbor. Mira returns to Athens after her parents’ death and on her first night she meets a sea captain who lives in her apartment across from hers. Both are grieving in different ways and form an unusual friendship, exchanging nightly stories across their balconies. Mira’s walks around the city, her dinners and drinks with friends and her afternoons in the bath are punctuated by the nightly return home, to the balcony, to confide in an almost unknown person.
Four. my cornered heart for marie ndiaye, translated by Jordan Stump
Nadia and Ange are schoolteachers who have built respectable middle-class lives for themselves. One day, a strange wound appears on Ange’s stomach. As the entire community gradually avoids the teachers, a neighbor, Nogent, whom they had always despised, comes to their aid in his vulnerable state and moves in to take care of them. Marie NDiaye is a master at creating menacing and wacky worlds that speak to the truth of the human experience.
5. Friends and dark ways for Kavita Bedford
This book, about a group of housemates in Sydney, beautifully maps spaces of loneliness and intimacy amidst gentrification, temporary work, personal pain, and collective joy. One of the pleasures of Bedford’s novel is following housemates through their daily routines, going to gallery openings for free drinks, hanging out aimlessly in the garden, discussing the best ways to stock up on paper toilet and go to the ocean pools.
6. monkey grip for Helen Garner
“In the old brown house on the corner, a mile from the center of town, we ate bacon for breakfast every morning of our lives. There were never enough chairs for all of us to sit at the dinner table.” Thus begins Monkey Grip, another novel about community life, this time in 1970s Melbourne. Nora is a single mother who is in love with cake addict Javo. She changes houses and partners, in new reconfigurations exploring what it means to live together. The loose, diaristic style of the novel perfectly captures the fluidity of friendships, love, sex, and coexistence.
7. By sea for Abdulrazak Gurnah
One afternoon, Saleh Omar arrives at Gatwick airport from Zanzibar seeking asylum. They take him to a B&B where other men, from Kosovo and the Czech Republic, are staying. Although they share the same strange lodgings, they know little about the stories that have brought them here. The only person in England who knows Omar is the son of the man whose name Omar took, once a neighbor in Zanzibar. When the two meet, a story from the past is revealed, both intimate and mysterious, the destinies of the men become deeply entangled.
8. lenders for Mary Norton
How not to include this lovely book, which I read and reread in the years that my family lived in the Danish commune. It must, in part, be responsible for my fascination with neighbors and their secret lives. Borrowers are tiny people who live in the walls and under the floorboards of an English house and “borrow” from the big humans. Although the tenants of the house do not know their miniature neighbors, a boy strikes up a friendship with the young borrower, Arrietty Clock.
9. A Luminous Republic for Andrew Beardtranslated by Lisa Dillmann
Thirty-two children appear in the town of San Cristóbal bordering the jungle, speaking a strange language of their own. No one knows where they come from or where they disappear to each night. The novel taps into our fears of each other, the ways we draw rigid boundaries, and our desire to tame the wild. A profound work on sharing physical and psychological universes.
10 Free love for tessa hadley
Hadley’s latest novel, set in 1960s London, is about 44-year-old Phyllis living in the suburbs with her husband and children. One night, at the edge of a pond, she kisses a young family friend: her life changes. Two groups of neighbors brilliantly portray Phyllis’s divided existence. There are the Holmeses across the street, at whose party Phyllis feels suffocated. And there is Barbara, the nurse from Granada, neighbor of Phyllis’s young lover in Ladbroke Grove. These neighbors embody not only the starkly different social worlds Phyllis inhabits, but also what it means for a woman reeling from her assigned roles to be looked upon by society.