IIn my childhood, my family lived in a municipality with 20 identical yellow houses on the outskirts of Copenhagen. There was dinner six days a week in the “common house.” Neighbors also shared maintenance tasks, made after-school snacks, held a store without a store owner, and celebrated most holidays together. We were the only non-Danes in the municipality, and our arrival was at once exciting and disturbing for the group. We were too loud, our house was too bright, we had family and friends visiting from Turkey for several months in a row. But we were also the most popular chefs in the municipality, and spent out of pocket, in addition to the dinner budgets, on making fried lamb and feta cakes. The municipality was an experiment in living together, as equals, even though for me it was also an education in all the ways we were different.
I am fascinated by life that thrives up in the immediate vicinity. What draws me to consider life as a model of fiction is the intersection of intimacy and distance, the ways in which life interacts, becomes entangled, or passes each other. Neighbors offer a unique vantage point in fiction because they witness much of life on the surface, but may be blind to depth. The friendship of the neighbors is also interesting to me: Neighbors must maintain a delicate balance of politeness for all the cohabitation that awaits ahead.
In my novel White on White, the painter Agnes begins to tell pieces of her life story to the art history student who rents the apartment under her studio. At first, the student is fascinated by Agnes and eager for her friendship, but when Agnes becomes independent, the student chooses anonymity by being a neighbor and chooses to avoid emotional responsibility.
The following books examine life up close, at once familiar and distant.
1. The magic mountain by Thomas Manntranslated by John E Woods
Hans Castorp arrives at a sanatorium to visit his cousin and ends up staying for a very long time. This is a book about time and about death, but it is told through the interaction with the sanatorium’s patients over dinners and small talk lunches. Everyone is sick, and as well-behaved neighbors, everyone avoids the subject. But the common fate of the residents creates an unspoken bond and a powerful backdrop for the novel.
2. A house in Norway by Vigdis Hjorthtranslated by Charlotte Barslund
Alma, a tapestry artist, rents out her house annex to a Polish family whose life she is witnessing from her own window over the course of six years. The premise of the novel puts the artist’s liberal views into troubled practice. Alma has always taken pride in her progressive values, but discovers as soon as the Polish family moves in that she is not as tolerant as she thought. This is an ingenious book on immigration, what it means to live together and the fragile ideals of the European project.
3. Scorpionfish by Natalie Bakopoulos
This atmospheric novel includes the intimate distance of being a neighbor. Mira returns to Athens after the death of her parents and meets on her first night a sea captain who lives in the apartment opposite her. They both mourn in different ways and they form an unusual friendship and exchange stories at night across their balconies. Mira’s walks around the city, her dinners and drinks with friends and her afternoons with swimming are marked by the nocturnal return home, to the balcony, to confide in an almost stranger.
4. My heart fell in by Marie N’Diaye, translated by Jordan Stump
Nadia and Ange are schoolteachers who have built a respectable middle class life for themselves. One day, a strange wound appears on Ange’s stomach. While the whole community slowly shuns the teachers, a neighbor, Something, whom they had always despised, comes to help them in their vulnerable condition and moves in to take care of them. Marie NDiaye is a master at creating menacing, off-kilter worlds that speak to the truth about human experience.
5. Friends and dark forms by Kavita Bedford
This book, about a group of roommates in Sydney, beautifully maps the spaces of loneliness and intimacy amidst gentrification, temporary work, personal grief, and collective joy. One of the pleasures of Bedford’s novel is following the housemates in their daily routines, going to gallery openings for free drinks, hanging out without purpose in the garden, discussing the best ways to fill toilet paper, and going to sea basins.
6. Monkey Grip by Helen Garner
“In the old brown house on the corner, a mile from the center of town, we ate bacon for breakfast every morning of our lives. There were never enough chairs for us all to sit up at the dining table. “Then begins Monkey Grip, another novel about life together, this time in 1970s Melbourne. Nora is a single mother and in love with the smash-addicted Javo. She changes houses and partner, in new reconfigurations and exploring what it means to live together.The novel’s loose, diaritic style perfectly captures the fluidity of friendships, love, sex and cohabitation.
7. By the sea by Abdulrazak Gurnah
One afternoon, Saleh Omar arrives at Gatwick Airport from Zanzibar and seeks asylum. He is taken to a B&B where other men from Kosovo and the Czech Republic live. Although they share the same strange abode, they know little about the stories that have brought them here. The only person in England who knows Omar is the son of the man whose name Omar has taken, once a neighbor in Zanzibar. When the two meet, a story about the past is revealed, at once intimate and mysterious, the men’s destinies deeply entangled.
8. The borrowers by Mary Norton
How could I not include this enchanting book, which I read and reread during the years my family lived in the Danish municipality. It must be partly responsible for my fascination with neighbors and their secret lives. The borrowers are tiny people who live in the walls and under the floorboards of an English house and “borrow” from the big people. Although the tenants of the house are not aware of their miniature neighbors, a boy starts a friendship with the young borrower, Arrietty Clock.
9. A luminous republic by Andrew Beardtranslated by Lisa Dillman
32 children show up in the city of San Cristóbal, which borders the jungle, and speak their own strange language. No one knows where they come from or where they disappear to every night. The novel is based on our fear of the other, the way we draw rigid boundaries and our desire to tame the wild. An in-depth work on sharing physical and psychological universes.
10. Free love by Tessa Hadley
Hadley’s latest novel, set in 60s London, is about 44-year-old Phyllis, who lives in the suburbs with her husband and children. One night, at the edge of a pond, she kisses a young family friend: her life has changed. Two sets of neighbors portray Phyllis’ divided life brilliantly. There are the Holmes on the other side of the street, to whose party Phyllis feels suffocated. And there’s Barbara, the nurse from Granada who is next door to Phyllis’ young lover in Ladbroke Grove. These neighbors embody not only the vastly different social worlds that Phyllis inhabits, but also what it means for a woman who withdraws from her assigned roles to be looked at by society.