The New Neighbor

The New Neighbor by Leah Stewart

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I was excited to see that Leah Stewart had put out another book and that she was coming to Nashville for the Southern Festival of Books. Leah was one of my professors in my graduate program at UC and I’ve enjoyed her previous books. When I heard Leah describe this new book, I recognized a thread from a novel-in-progress she read at UC almost a decade ago: a story about a WWII nurse. When she published The History of Us instead, I wondered what happened to the nurse. Apparently, Leah’s been working on that character for a very long time, and this book is her final form.

Margaret is the WWII nurse, now 90 years old and retired to a secluded cabin near Sewanee, TN. She becomes intrigued with the mysterious woman who moves in across the lake from her, Jennifer. The story alternates between Margaret’s first person narration and Jennifer’s third person perspective. Jennifer has a past she’s hiding, and Margaret is inclined to play detective.

This book has all the suspense and tension of a psychological thriller or detective story, but without the fighting or action scenes you might expect from those genres. Instead there are guarded exchanges, carefully planned revelations, and lots of flashbacks. Leah had me hooked from the beginning with Margaret’s wry, crotchety voice, and I couldn’t stop reading. The ending surprised me three times that I counted. The moral murkiness of the characters’ choices kept taking me aback. I’d recommend it wholeheartedly.

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2666

2666 by Roberto Bolano

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This gigantic, posthumous book includes several tenuously connected narratives, each of which is long enough to be at least a novella. The longest, most central story is about a series of murders of women in a Mexico border town modeled on Ciudad Juarez. The women’s bodies are described in brutal, clinical detail, and most of the crimes are never solved. The effect is an overwhelming pile of bodies, an endless accumulation of violence. Some other passages reminded me of Marquez in their dreamlike quality and fantastic improbability. The beginning and ending narratives seem most removed from the crimes in Mexico, concerning a trio of European academics and their scholarly obsession, a reclusive German writer.

I didn’t always find the book easy to read, whether because of the violence, because the characters were sometimes hard to connect with, or because it was just so long. The style seemed a little alienating at times, but I’m sure that was a deliberate choice. There was a payoff, though, once I could see the connections between the various narratives. The ending of “The Part About the Crimes,” in particular, I found sinister and moving. Sometimes reading a gigantic book like this makes you feel like you’ve really accomplished something, even conquered something. There are some stories that just have to be long.