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Yes, I’ve been reading. Not as much as I’d like, but steadily. I’ve just not been keeping up with this blog because, well, I’ve been writing dammit! I finished the first draft of the book on Mythago Wood late on the last day of February, which just about squeezes in to my schedule. Surprisingly. I mean, the draft is just over 31,000 words, which is pretty well bang on my word limit, and that’s not much. It’s well under half the length of what was previously my shortest book, yet at times it was more of a struggle to get those words down on the page than any of my other books. But anyway, mustn’t grumble, the draft is done and I’ve now given myself a couple of weeks to catch up on other things before I return to do a second draft.

Which means I have a chance to get back to writing up the books I’ve been reading. And the first is The Good Neighbours by Nina Allan which is … well, I’m not sure if it is my favourite of her novels because I still have immense affection for The Rift, but it is certainly challenging for the number one position.

And yet I once again had that moment that I seem to get with every one of her novels, the moment when I put the book down and ask myself: “What the fuck am I reading?” This is, I should point out, exactly the reason I value her work so highly.

Nina Allan’s work occupies two worlds. One is our quotidian reality. This is privileged: it is where the novel opens and closes, it is unquestioned. This is the world we see around us, the one we take for granted as real. But at some point another world opens. We may spend some time there, but it remains little more than a glimpse, allowing us not quite enough to judge its nature. This world is questioned within the text, we are told to doubt it, but generally in a way that leaves us insecure in our doubt. This may be a realm as real as our own, it may be the fictional creation of one of the characters, or it may be a delusion arising from some sort of psychological damage. We do not know, we cannot be sure. But it profoundly affects the behaviour of at least one of the characters, so it is real to them.

In a way this is the trick that Christopher Priest pulled off in The Affirmation, but Allan does not collapse the two worlds into one at the end. This necessarily leaves everything ambivalent.

The novel is primarily set on Bute, where Allen now lives, which perhaps adds to the solidity of the scenes of everyday reality. But this isn’t quite real, because there is the sort of mass murder that happens more in fiction than in reality. Shirley, the best friend of Cath, our viewpoint character, is murdered, along with her mother and her younger brother. It is assumed that the father is the killer, but he himself dies in a car accident while driving across the island. And this is where we start to question the assumed reality of all this, because the father, John Craigie, is not driving to the ferry to get off the island; in fact he is driving in the opposite direction. This seems perverse, no one can say why he is driving that way, but then, no one asks. Also, the gun that was used is missing. Where did it go, and where did someone like John Craigie get a gun in the first place? Nobody asks: the police have identified the killer to their own satisfaction, he’s safely dead, why bother with fiddly details. This reality is a world of assumptions, and it is not altogether clear how valid those assumptions are.

Years later, Cath returns to the island. She is now a photographer working on a series featuring murder houses, ordinary everyday homes that were also the scenes of notorious murders. The Craigie murders is an obvious part of this series. But again with Cath there is a sense that reality is not so solid as it should be. Oh the external reality is almost hypersolid: I’ve not been there, but I suspect you could walk the streets of Rothesay and point out the house, the fish and chip shop, the café, and all the other places mentioned in the book. But is Cath that solid, that real? Because Cath still engages in conversations with Shirl. Supposedly this is all in Cath’s mind, her memory of Shirl’s colourful turn of phrase, yet these dialogues (some of which can be really quite long) have a real-world effect on Cath’s opinions and actions. Already we are being schooled to think in terms of a parallel reality that touches and interacts with our own.

Then we learn that John Craigie, bully and brute though he was, believed in fairies and was afraid of them. Are there fairies? Does it matter? Even if there are no such things as fairies, can they have real world effects? That’s what underpins the novel. In various ways, small and large, we keep seeing the real and the unreal rubbing up against each other. It is not just the interplay between worlds, John Craigie looking into the realm of fairy, Shirl speaking out from the land of the dead; there are other hesitations and uncertainties that raise doubts at every turn. Is Cath’s seeming romantic relationship with the woman who has moved into the Craigie house real or imagined? Is there anything more than coincidence in the fact that the person who witnessed John Craigie’s car crash was also involved in another murder that had been the subject of Cath’s previous photographic series?

And John Craigie, whatever else he may have been, was a master craftsman who had made an exquisite dolls’ house for his daughter. But when she examines the dolls’ house, Cath realizes that he had built into it a secret room, a room to which there was no apparent entrance. Then, when she searches the Craigie house, Cath finds a hidden compartment within a bedroom cupboard, a compartment that shouldn’t exist, that seems to occupy a strange twist in reality. She reaches within that compartment and finds nothing, then she feels again and finds the gun, almost as if it came into existence the moment she reached her hand out. But of course there is no way to know whose gun it was, or who fired it.

The story ends, satisfyingly, with lots of questions but no answers. As in The Rift, the explanation the reader chooses to accept depends upon which reality they choose to believe. As a novel of ambivalence and hesitation, this is superb.