Kia Abdullah has a gift for crafting emotionally taut page-turners charged with rapidly rising racial tensions, and Those People Next Door is no exception. In her latest novel, Abdullah introduces us to two families: Salma and Bilal Khatun and their teenage son Zain, who just moved into the neighbourhood, and their next door neighbours, Tom and Willa Hutton and their teenage son Jamie.
It starts when Salma witnesses Tom knock Zain’s Black Lives Matter sign down with a ball. She moves the sign to her window, and wakes up to find her window painted over. She confronts Tom, who claims innocence over the window, and claims he knocked over the sign not because he disagreed with the message, but because he’s a pedant about rules, and neighbourhood bylaws prohibit lawn signage. Salma doesn’t believe him, and posts a passive-aggressive tweet about “tolerant Britain” that goes viral. And things escalate from there. Their spouses get involved, their sons are forced to hide their friendship, and eventually, things come to a head. A crime is committed, an arrest is made, and the novel shifts into a courtroom drama. (Content warnings below the ‘read more’ tag. They contain some minor spoilers for the plot, but not the ending.)
Abdullah’s courtroom scenes are usually my favourite parts of her books, but that wasn’t so much the case this time. I think it’s because we watched so much of the drama unfold in real time, before we even got to the courtroom, and while it was interesting to see how the characters words are interpreted (and at times, twisted) on the stand, there wasn’t the nail-biting whodunit element that I loved so much in Take It Back.
The whole back-and-forth pettiness of Salma and Tom’s war on each other was more sad than anything. As each family escalated the battle, and each escalation brought on new stress, sorrow, and anger unto the other family, I just felt really sad for all of them, and wished they could sit down and talk it all out. Is Tom racist? Sure, he shouldn’t have said what he did about the smells of Salma’s cooking, but he paid dearly for that remark, and I can’t blame Willa for feeling angry that the video was posted even after Salma promised it wouldn’t be. Even though the tensions between the families had definite undertones of racism and class privilege, mostly, the battle was just a lot of pettiness, and the characters’ mix of exhaustion and rage as things kept escalating radiated from the page.
Against this backdrop, we have the friendship between Zain and Jamie, who have teamed up to develop an app for deaf folks. Jamie has hearing loss, and Zain is a coder, so they both bring something unique to the table. They even submit the app for a diversity startup fund, and as nice as it is to read about them working on it together, it’s also sad to see how their families’ tensions are putting a strain on their friendship.
One thing I will say is that I did not realize this book was a whodunit until the big reveal. I know who had been arrested for the crime, I was confident about who had actually committed the crime, and my assumption made me sad. The reveal surprised me, and in some ways, made me even sadder.
Those People Next Door is a fast-paced, emotionally taut book, and in some ways, also a legal thriller. But mostly, it’s a psychological study of six people. All six are doing their best to get by in this world, yet because of…well, choices, they can’t quite have the lives they want. Many of their choices are understandable, if not unavoidable, yet throughout the story, you just keep wanting to ask: you may have won this round, but at what cost?
Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
(includes minor spoilers on the plot, but not the ending)
[CW: pet-napping (the pet turns out fine), miscarriage, a teen is seriously injured (they’re alive, but not fine)]