Today I’m delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for The Perfect Neighbours by Rachel Sargeant. I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the book, but also sharing a guest post from Rachel on the inspiration behind her characters. First up, let’s take a look at what the book is all about.
The Official Book Blurb
The perfect neighbours tell the perfect lies…
A dark and twisty psychological thriller from a rising star in the genre, perfect for fans of THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR. When Helen moves into an exciting new neighbourhood, she finds herself in a web of evil with no escape.
Behind the shutters lies a devastating secret…
When Helen moves abroad with her loving husband Gary, she can’t wait to meet her fellow expat teachers from the local International School. But her new start is about to become her worst nightmare…
As soon as the charming family across the way welcome Helen into their home, she begins to suspect that all is not as it seems. Then Gary starts to behave strangely and a child goes missing, vanished without a trace.
When violence and tragedy strike, cracks appear in the community, and Helen realises her perfect neighbours are capable of almost anything…
The People in My Head
by Rachel Sargeant
Thank you, Jen, for giving me this opportunity to stop off at your blog on my tour.
I sometimes get asked if my characters are based on real people. Apart from the questionable ethics of doing that, real people would make lousy characters as I’d never be able to get them to do and say what I wanted. I’d always know that in real life they wouldn’t react that way. I just don’t think I could shoehorn them into my plots.
My characters mostly pop out of my imagination as I’m writing. If a character materializes when I’m doing something else – like driving or ironing – it can be the trigger for a new story. I sketch out a plot outline first and then go back to thinking about the characters. I create a complete profile for each one. A lot of the information won’t get used in the novel but I like to have it as a point of reference and to check that I’m being consistent. If I’m not careful, people start off with blue eyes and end up with brown.
Often it’s physical appearance that strikes me first about a new character. This was the case with Louisa in The Perfect Neighbours. In my mind’s eye, I pictured her as clear as day:
A perfect woman stood on the doorstep – sleek shoulder length hair a shade of chestnut that only a top salon could make look natural, and flawless made-up skin.
Her personality also came fairly easily. A little like Alison Steadman’s portrayal of Beverly in Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, Louisa is a zealous hostess who attempts to control others with her generous hospitality. Louisa may be more refined than Beverly, but her frequent coffee mornings and dinner parties are more stifling. In this extract she has main character Helen in her sights:
“It’s the wives’ breakfast at my house tomorrow,” Louisa said. “I’ve put you down for a dozen cookies. Aldi ones will do if you can’t bake.”
“I’ve arranged to go swimming tomorrow,” Helen replied.
Louisa paused and Helen savoured her hesitation. But her victory didn’t last.
“I hope you’re going to the village pool. I managed to get four hundred people to sign my petition and I convinced the town hall officials to open it for us.”
As Helen listened to Louisa’s account of how she asserted herself, she gripped the door, longing to slam it in her neighbour’s community-spirited face. Eventually Louisa remembered she had more breakfast invitations to deliver and left.
With some characters, personality is clearer to me than appearance, as with Louisa’s neighbour, Chris. He is an arrogant man with an unshakeable sense of self-worth. Here we meet him for the first time:
He took Helen’s hand. “I’m Chris Mowar and you must be my new lady next-door. It’s going to be a pleasure.”
He held onto her and his shiny eyes scrutinized her face. She decided it was time to tug her hand away, but as she did so, he let go, making it look as if she had pulled harder than necessary. She had the unpleasant sensation that she’d reacted exactly as he had wanted her to.
The novel features several men of about the same age so I had to distinguish each one physically. I gave Chris a pink face, big, white hair, a fondness for peacock blue shirts and leather coats, and a red sports car.
Some characters – like my main character Helen – I don’t really visualize. I know she’s taller than Louisa, has a physique that enables her to swim well, and is attractive to the men in the novel, but she didn’t come into my head in a physical form. Instead she made me see the world of the novel through her eyes. Her personality comes out in her attitude to others and to the setting.
These are her first thoughts on driving towards her new home:
They drove off the A road – the Landstrasse as Gary called it – into a grey, built-up area. She thought of the coach trip she’d made with a year ten class to Bulgaria; Communist-built apartment blocks on the outskirts of Sofia.
Gary pulled up at traffic lights and pointed. “And behind there is the Niers International School.”
Through the spike-topped metal fence on the right she made out rows of full bicycle stands. It looked like a provincial railway station.
A few days later, as she stands in her kitchen, washing up the breakfast things, she gives away her feelings about one of her new neighbours:
She opened the herbal oil that Louisa had foisted on her at the dinner party and coughed at its biting, acidic scent. She added a few drops to her bowl and watched the pale liquid spread in the running water and mingle with her crockery. It looked like pee. She grabbed the bowl and emptied it.
She watched out of the window as various neighbours set off for school, some on bikes, some walking. She stepped back from the window when Louisa swept past in an enormous four-by-four, powerful enough to cross the Serengeti plains. She slammed the herbal oil bottle into her pedal bin.
As I stay with her for most of the story, something of me has crept into her narrative. I used to live in a small British community overseas and occasionally experienced the cabin fever that plagues Helen. This helped when writing her sense of claustrophobia. Swimming is my main hobby – after writing – so I couldn’t resist making it Helen’s hobby too, although she’s rather better at it than I am. But that’s the great thing about writing, I can make the people in my head do anything.
Thanks Rachel. That’s a really interesting insight as to how you created the key characters. They are some very memorable people, that’s for sure, particularly Louisa. She certainly makes an impression.
So what did I think about the book? Well to be perfect honest, I thoroughly enjoyed it. From the very off there was a base layer of intrigue – you knew something had happened, something really bad, but little of the who, how and why. Clearly our protagonist was in a lot of hot water, and I was immediately sucked into wanting to know more. Wanting to explain some of the imagery that the narrator recounted in their thoughts, some of it quite stark and yet vague enough that I was compelled to keep reading. Once I’d started I didn’t look back, the writing style so fluid that I flew through half of the book without realising, and the tension building slowly but surely even as more questions began to surface in my mind.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot itself – the blurb does a perfectly adequate job of setting the scene. All you really need to know is that something very bad, actually quite disturbing happens, and the main body of the story retells the days leading up to this event from the point of view of Helen. Helen is the new kid on the block, finally joining her husband Gary to settle in Germany where he works as a teacher. Helen gives up a lot to be with Gary, leaving her home in (my native) Shropshire and giving up on her own career. And what she finds when she first enters the international community, made exclusively of employees of the International School, is almost too picture perfect to be true. In fact, this couldn’t be more accurate. Her neighbours range from the ordinary to the slightly oddball; from charming to sleazy; from everyday to exceptional. At least that is what Helen perceives. But every neighbourhood has its secrets and this one is no different.
Interspersed within the main narrative, are segments from the present day where Helen is waiting to be questioned by the police, and also some rather unusual sections where a young student recounts meeting a mysterious stranger, a meeting which looks set to change their life. But just who this student is and how it fits into the story remains a mystery until the end. There are just so many of the main characters who could easily be that person, so many half truths being told, that it will have your mind whirring as you try to figure it out. The only thing you can be sure of is that it’s not one of Louisa’s kids and it isn’t her dog either. Other than that, anyone could be fair game.
This book really did capture my imagination. A kind of keeping up with the Jones’ meets Stepford Wives, meets Helen’s very own Nightmare before Christmas. It is not a fast paced action thriller, and if that is what you are looking for then you should look elsewhere. This is a kind of domestic noir, laden with misdirection, full of characters you can despise, pity and on occasion empathise with. Full of twisted and negative relationships where nobody seems capable of telling the full truth and so you are never quite certain who to believe. You read knowing that the biggest secret has yet to be revealed, but even as you hunt it down, there are so many others set to trip you up along the way. This is a toxic neighbourhood and these are damaged people. Nothing good can possibly come from being in their company …
Unless, that is, you are a reader, because from the very first page I knew I was assured of a fluffing good read from an author I can’t wait to hear from again.
With thanks to the publisher Harper Collins and the author for providing an advance copy of the book for review. It is available now from the following retailers:
About the author
Rachel Sargeant grew up in Lincolnshire. The Perfect Neighbours is her third novel. She is a previous winner of Writing Magazine’s Crime Short Story competition and has been placed or shortlisted in various competitions, including the Bristol Short Story Prize. Her stories have appeared in My Weekly and the Accent Press Saucy Shorts series. Rachel has a degree in German and Librarianship from Aberystwyth University and a Masters in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. She spent several years living in Germany where she taught English and she now lives in Gloucestershire with her husband and children.
Why not stop by one of the other blogs taking part in the tour: