Safe from the Neighbors
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by Steve Yarbrough
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (January 26, 2010)
Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
Reviewed by Thumper
I came across Steve Yarbrough's latest novel, Safe from the Neighbors,
when I started my annual search on the new novels being published in the New
Year. I was more than a little intrigued, I was positively giddy. Yeah, I
was happy to ready another Southern novel based on race relations. I'm
thinking southern gothic, you now, a white man being killed for marrying his
cousin, shot by his daughter while his illegitimate biracial children smugly
look over the white side of the family and shake its head and breaks out
singing "Go down Moses". *LOL* Well, I did not get that in Safe from the
Neighbors. The novel, which tells the story of a man going through a midlife
crisis, links the man's present and past by the common thread of the
historical event of James Meredith being the first black student being
admitted into the University of Mississippi. Safe from the Neighbors is a
marvel. The story goes down like a rich smooth glass wine that hits you with
a subtle after taste that reminds you how good it was.
Lucas May is a high school history teacher in Loring, Mississippi. Lucas and his wife Jennifer has just sent their twin daughters to the University of Mississippi for their freshman year. The couple is in the beginning phase of the "empty nest" syndrome, realizing that the kids were the main string holding their marriage together. When Luke starts the new school year, he is introduced to Maggie Sorrentino, the new French teacher. At first, Luke does not recognize Maggie Sorrentino as his childhood playmate Maggie Calloway, whose father murdered her mother. As Luke's present life is being told, two other stories are unfolding at the same time: the events and circumstances leading up to Maggie's mother's murder; and the admission of James Meredith in the University of Mississippi, both in 1962. These three seemingly separate events will intersect and affect the other.
Safe from the Neighbors is a beautifully complex, multilayered novel with surprising depth. The most remarkable component of the novel is its narrative. Yarbrough does a remarkable job in not only developing three separate narratives, but he managed to fully develop each of them without shortchanging any one of them. In the hands of less capable writers, this novel, using this particular narrative, would have been a confusing hot mess. I was equally interested in each of the narratives. I did not wish that I was reading about the younger Luke when I was currently reading the mishaps of the older Luke. Yarbrough struck the essential balance that was needed in order to have successfully pulled off the narrative technique.
The characters were incredible. Yarbrough had to develop, basically, two versions of the same character and yet form a connection that binds the two versions. For example, there is a present day, 40-something Luke May and the younger, 1962 Luke May. I had no trouble identifying which Luke was on stage, or which storyline was unfolding. Yarbrough performed this same feat with most of the characters in the book and constructing the appropriate scenery of the stories. I loved it.
Safe from the Neighbors was as smooth as glass. The narratives, the characters, all brought a level of complexity to the story without the cumbersome, lethargic flow that I would associate with a novel of this depth. The complexity is deceptively simplistic. It is easy to see why Yarbrough is mentioned in the same breath as other great Southern writers, such as Faulkner and Caldwell. I concur.