Class Tensions Simmer in Those People

Those People  ( 2019)
By Louise Candlish
Berkley/Penguin, 368 pages

 American literature used to abound with novels that stripped away the veneer of middle class life and exposed ugly truths. Now just a handful of authors–Joan Didion, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Tom Perrotta, Stewart O’Nan–would dare. In the United States, social stratification has become the Great Denial. In the prevailing myth, all Americans are members of the middle class and that way of life is one of materialistic bliss.

Contrast this with Britain, where social class is openly discussed and bourgeois values are not universally admired. Louise Candlish held those values to the fire in Our House (2018) and in her latest novel, Those People, turns up the flames. She takes us to Lowland Way, a bourgeois oasis just 8 miles from Central London. It’s a classic gentrified neighborhood whose residents hired help to rehab old houses then settled in for the long haul. Lowland Way is surrounded by greenswards and shot through with an unexamined paternalism that’s more mid-20th century than early 21st. Though some of the women work, most are inordinately fixated on children, dog walking, and worrying about the cygnets (swan chicks) on the park pond. Naomi Morgan has even won praise from local officials for spearheading Play Out Sunday–a weekly traffic blockade of the neighborhood so that children can recreate on the street.

She and her husband Ralph reside at # 7 Lowland Way. Ralph is the unofficial patriarch of the neighborhood. He’s the successful owner of a leather goods manufactory, drives a flash car, and is a bit on the haughty side. His younger brother (by two years) Finn lives at #5 with his wife Tess and their children. Ralph and Finn go to the pub regularly and are best buddies. New parents Ant(hony) and Em(ily) Kendall live at #3.The other member of the inner circle is 60-year-old Sissy Watkins, who is divorced and runs a desirable B & B from her home to make ends meet. She lives across from #1, which is empty since the death of Jean Booth, whom everyone misses. It’s a cozy little set up in which residents comment on how lucky they are.

Their urban idyll receives a jolt when #1 passes to Jean’s cousin Darren Booth and his partner Jodie. On the surface they are “those people” of the book’s title. Darren is what many Brits unflatteringly call a “bloke,” a 57-year-old working-class man of few social graces and even fewer filters. The same is true of his salty-tongued partner Jodie. They are the neighbors from hell that tear down walls and trees, convert # 1 into an unofficial used car lot, and their home into a 24/7 scaffold-covered construction sight with loud music blaring and the occasional booze-filled party raging.

Booth and his neighbors get off on the wrong foot and it degenerates from there. The Kendalls can’t sleep and they worry about the possible hearing damage done to their child from all the noise. Ralph fumes about all of the junky vehicles–including an ugly van in front of his house–parked on the street and he blows his stack when he learns from the local council that it’s perfectly legal to keep them there. Finn echoes his brother, Tess grows disgusted with Darren’s uncouth language and disrespect, and Sissy struggles to make ends meet when her ratings suffer and bookings decline. All are appalled that Darren and Jodie are more prone to tell them to “fuck off” than to negotiate.

What to do about a problem like Darren and Jodie? The local council and police are either understaffed or loath to act, so how will locals cope?  Candlish guides us through shifting dynamics, several tragedies, and an ongoing police investigation that casts doubt on guilt and innocence. Candlish starts her novel eight weeks before a major incident and takes us week by week through a series of subplots, shaky alibis, and unreliable first-person narratives. Are Darren and Jodie just as awful as they seem, or is all of this a bad case of bourgeois snobbery and assumption of privilege? It is to Candlish’s credit that she does not resort to cut-and-dried morality. Soon, there is both inter- and intra-class rivalry and we begin to wonder if maybe we’ve misjudged whom Candlish intends those people to be. (Maybe the answer is both!)

This is a potboiler, not the sort of thing you’d read in an English lit class, but it’s a very good one. Candlish perhaps artificially widens class barriers, but she is keenly aware that they exist, which I find this preferable to the aforementioned Great Denial. Those People is set in England, but it should make North American readers consider the class gulf that, among other things, played out in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. If you don’t think there are millions of Darren Booths from sea to shining sea, you’re living in a bubble. Even if you’re not up for a sociology lesson, Those People is a great summer read.

Rob Weir

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