Tuesday, March 1, 2011

book review: A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne

A Crime in the NeighborhoodThe backstory: A Crime in the Neighborhood won the Orange Prize in 1999. It was Suzanne Berne's first novel.

The basics: The novel begins with the murder of a young boy in a wooded area by a mall in Washington, D.C. in 1972. Then Berne steps back from this tragedy and shifts the tone and focus: we enter the lives of the Eberhardt family through the eyes and voice of 10-year-old Marsha.

My thoughts: Marsha is an interesting child narrator. As the book continues, it becomes clear Marsha is narrating from the present time (the events are in the 1970's), but this foreshadowing (future-shadowing?) is minimal. As the reader is put into the crumbling marriage and ensuing family drama of the Eberhardts, the death of Boyd Ellison takes a different turn. The first chapter of this novel felt like a crime novel (and I enjoy crime novels), but the abrupt shift to Marsha talking about Boyd in the context of her interactions with him (now containing more significance) and a highly emotional and tumultuous summer steers it into something much deeper, both emotionally and intellectually. Berne covers an impressive amount of thematic ground in this short novel. She captures the 1970's and Washington, D.C. beautifully. From the micro (Boyd Ellison's murder, the Eberhardts) to the macro (Watergate), Suzanne Berne examines one momentous summer with a haunting beauty.

One of the things I most enjoyed about Marsha as a narrator was her absolute honesty with the reader. She reminded me of how I thought and acted at 10, and it was frightening and impressive:
I have never been one of those people who can retract a lie, who can explain that I spoke carelessly, that I hadn't meant what I said. Once I have lied, I've propelled myself into a story that has its own momentum. It's not that I convince myself that I'm telling the truth, it's that the truth becomes flexible. Or rather, the truth appears to me as utterly relative, which is a frightening thought but also inevitable if you examine any truth long enough, even reassuring in a cold way.
Marsha as a narrator brings both youthful honesty and the wisdom of age from her future self. It's a testament to Berne how well it worked and how rarely I noticed the subtle shifts. Like The Lovely Bones, a book I read and enjoyed pre-blogging days, A Crime in the Neighborhood makes an effort to point out the events happened in the 1970's, before the murder of a child became common. It always struck me as an interesting distinction. Seeing Marsha's reaction to the murder of a boy who lived in her neighborhood, I was struck by the timelessness of it. I think my neighbors would have reacted the same way if it happened in 1990, when I was ten. The 1970's are a fascinating time, and immense change happened, but I'm still not convinced it's more of a defining time than any other decade; it simply seems so to those who live it.

Favorite passage: "She trusted her as one trusts someone fully comprehended, which may not be a good idea as there is no such thing."

The verdict: A Crime in the Neighborhood is a lovely, introspective, character-driven story with intrigue, family drama, and community drama interspersed with national and international events. It is both timeless and an ode to the time and place in which it's set.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 283 pages
Publication date: January 6, 1997 (it's available in paperback or on the Kindle too)
Source: my local public library

Treat yourself! Order A Crime in the Neighborhood in paperback or for the Kindle from Amazon, from the Book Depository, or from an independent bookstore.

Have you read other Suzanne Berne novels? Which novel of hers should I read next?

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!


  1. I love the quote that you posted, and have to agree that this protagonist sounds really unique. I think this is a book that I would really like to read, and so I am going to have to check it out. Great review on this one!

  2. I'm pretty sure I have this one on my shelves at home. I sure hope I do because after reading your review I really want to read the book.

  3. I do need to check this one out. This does sound intriguing and one that may leave me thinking about it - I need to find one like that soon.


Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!