Friday, 9 September 2016

Book Review: THE FENCE by Meredith Jaffe

The Fence

Title: The Fence
Author: Meredith Jaffe
Publisher: Macmillan Australia
Read: September 2016

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Gwen Hill has lived on Green Valley Avenue all her adult life. Here she brought her babies home, nurtured her garden and shared life's ups and downs with her best friend and neighbour, Babs. So when Babs dies and the house next door is sold, Gwen wonders how the new family will fit settle into the quiet life of this cosy community.

Francesca Desmarchelliers has high hopes for the house on Green Valley Avenue. More than just a new home, it's a clean slate for Frankie, who has moved her brood from Sydney's inner city to the leafy north shore street in a bid to save her marriage and keep her rambunctious family together.
To maintain her privacy and corral her wandering children, Frankie proposes a fence between their properties, destroying Gwen's lovingly cultivated front garden.

To Gwen, this as an act of war.

Soon the neighbours are in an escalating battle that becomes about more than just council approvals, and boundaries aren't the only things at stake.

My thoughts:

Imagine that you have lived next door to your best friend for decades, have shared countless cups of tea and glasses of wine, have raised each other’s children and moaned about each other’s husbands. You cried on her shoulder when you lost yet another baby and in turn tended to your friend’s garden as lovingly as your own. Your doors where always open for each other, and your children were free to roam the neighbourhood, safe under the umbrella of a large network of close neighbours. But your best friend has just died, the house has been sold, and strangers are moving in next door. Strangers whose children have names like Silver, Amber, Buttercup and Bijoux, with a double-barrel surname nobody can spell or pronounce. Children whose first action is to pick the flowers you have lovingly watered and tended, and let lose their two mutts who defecate all over your garden. And worst of all, the new neighbours demand that a fence be built between their house and yours, which means cutting down the line of trees you have planted for your old friend as an informal boundary line. For Gwen, this is the worst insult of all.  “But I promise you one thing, young lady. Building a fence is not going to keep the world out and won’t keep your children in. Life is not that simple.” Thus starts Jaffe’s new satirical novel The Fence, set in one of Sydney’s leafy neighbourhoods whose peace is forever shattered by the neighbourhood feud soon to ensue.

I truly loved this book, and it is one of my favourite Australian reads of the year! With her astute observations and skilful characterisations, Jaffe presents a refreshing new voice in Australian contemporary fiction, and one I look forward to reading a lot more from in future.

Jaffe’s novel explores, amongst interpersonal issues, the generational differences concerning family values and child rearing, with the fence representing not only a physical but also metaphorical divide between two very different women, two generations, two differing life philosophies. On one side we have Gwen, the archetypal stay-at-home Earth mother, whose home is always open to extended family, friends or neighbours and whose garden is a self-sustainable food haven and her gift to her neighbours. On the other side of the fence is Frankie, a busy working mother of four small children struggling to save her marriage and juggle career with family commitments. Whilst Gwen believes that children should be raised by the “village” and sees the street as a communal area for all residents, Frankie takes a much more insular approach, wanting to fence her loved ones in to keep them safe and contained in the little fortress she has built against the world and its problems. It is no surprise that these ideologically different women soon clash as they struggle to fight for their right to live life the way they believe is suited to them.

It is to Jaffe’s credit that she manages to present all her characters in a way that the reader is able to feel empathy for them, no matter how appalling their actions may seem at times. I found I had a soft spot for everyone in the book, even the most flawed characters – as soon as I was ready to hate one of them, Jaffe would throw in a new perspective, a new bit of information that threw me off my track and turned my dislike to empathy and prompted introspection on my part. Didn’t every character act out of a deep conviction that their way was the right one?   After recently having read a spate of books with unlikeable characters, I really appreciated Jaffe’s art of unearthing a soft vulnerable core in every character on both sides of the fence. I also loved how she brings in the children’s perspectives of the whole fence debacle in a way that challenges any preconceived ideas or opinions the reader may have formed. Whilst the adults are busy erecting barricades, the children have long learned to overcome them, in a literal as well as symbolical sense. It begs the question whether we are doing our children any favours by depriving them of contact with the older generation, as they would have had in the era of extended families, when grandparents were still involved in their lives.

By the way – I loved the little snippets from Gwen’s gardening column and will try some of her advice on my own plants! A wonderful novel, and a full 5 stars from me. Loved it – very much recommended, especially for readers who enjoy a good Aussie drama, such as Liane Moriarty’s writing. 

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

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1 comment:

  1. I love the twisty oak limb, but if you decide to shorten the branch it will grow back fairly quickly and you can direct the growth upwards. Next time you come over I'll show you how much length the horizonal oak branches next door gained after the limbs overhanging the driveway were shortened. I was amazed at how fast they grew.
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