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Perfectly Nice Neighbors


Perfectly Nice Neighbors

Kia Abdullah, whose novel TAKE IT BACK was a thriller of the year in the UK, returns with PERFECTLY NICE NEIGHBORS. This twisty suburban drama is about keeping up appearances, covert and overt racism, and just how far someone can be pushed before they cease to act like the person they believe themselves to be.

“It’s a bit like purgatory,” jokes Salma Khatun when she and her husband, Bilal, tour a bright, bland, newly developed house nestled in a neat cul-de-sac in a thriving, safe suburb. Salma and Bilal have had a rough few years. Bilal’s popular Bangladeshi restaurant shuttered as a result of the pandemic, and their son, Zain, has fallen in with a not-quite-bad but dodgy group at school. Accustomed to being “othered” in their own everyday lives, Salma and Bilal --- or “Bill” to his white neighbors, who comfortably pronounce the names of classic composers but not his two-syllable, phonetic moniker --- want to give their son the best chance possible to start his adult life on equal footing with his white peers. The failure of Bilal’s restaurant has the couple scraping the bottoms of their wallets and bank accounts, but they still agree to purchase the lovely house. This is the fresh start they all need.

"PERFECTLY NICE NEIGHBORS is a timely, perfectly crafted domestic suspense.... [A]s grimace-inducing as [Salma's] not-so-nice neighbors are, it’s the final twist that will really haunt you."

Unsurprisingly, their neighbors are all white and a bit posh, but they seem nice enough. Sure, there are a few strange comments and insults disguised as jokes --- one neighbor asks how they secured the house under social housing, and another quips that they’re welcome to bring their spicy foods next time --- but it’s nothing that Salma and Bilal haven’t seen before, right down to crass Tom Hutton and willowy, gorgeous Willa, who seems to personify every single white woman Salma has ever seen weaponize their privilege. But then Salma witnesses Tom look both ways before tossing a ball in their yard, perfectly aimed to take down her son’s BLACK LIVES MATTER flag. She knows that these are not the perfectly nice neighbors she was promised.

One altercation leads to another. Salma moves the flag inside only to find her window painted white the next day, her car is keyed, and her neighbor makes a comment about how her food stinks up their property. The situation escalates when Salma posts a tweet complaining about her (anonymous) “tolerant” neighbors, and Zain uploads a video of Tom screaming at Salma. These two events lead to Tom being fired from his job, putting his marriage to poor little rich girl Willa at risk. But no matter how threatened Salma and her family feel, their neighbors assure them that Blenheim is a safe community where no one could possibly feel threatened…unless Salma and Bilal perhaps have ties to more dangerous communities themselves. And, of course, there’s no reason for them to install cameras. After all, wouldn’t that make the neighborhood look like a crime den, thereby inviting crime to all of their doorsteps?

Now the two families are at odds, and despite all of the Huttons’ assurances that they don’t even see race, their microaggressions, outright aggressions and behaviors speak --- nay scream --- otherwise. And with Salma reluctantly taking on the often stereotyped and discredited persona of “angry woman of color,” she has a lot riding on winning this fight. But how can anyone win when the origin of a fight is the right of a person to exist as themselves? And how can a person so assured that they are not racist become an aggressor set on targeting an entire Bangladeshi family?

Even as Zain and the Hutton son, Jamie, become (secret) friends, any chance of reconciliation between the families seems impossible. But no one is prepared when tragedy hits them in the worst ways imaginable. With these families fractured beyond repair, Abdullah forces her readers to consider the pervasive evilness of racism, bigotry and prejudice, and the simple fact that no one can be let off the hook when these acts are overlooked.

PERFECTLY NICE NEIGHBORS is a timely, perfectly crafted domestic suspense. While this is not a psychological thriller, Abdullah centers the chills on the very real, very pervasive acts of racist humans, particularly those who are completely unaware of, or very good at ignoring, their own biases. The dialogue is expertly written, with Tom and Willa saying seemingly innocuous things that scream of racism and somehow still convincing themselves that they don’t see race. It’s a terrifying game of mental gymnastics every bit as chilling as the real acts of violence taking place on the page. Abdullah educates her readers as much as she entertains them.

Readers who gobbled up Abdullah’s previous books may find this one to be a bit less “thriller” than “suspense.” But rest assured that her signature talent for the final twist is still on display here…and as grimace-inducing as her not-so-nice neighbors are, it’s the final twist that will really haunt you.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on September 22, 2023

Perfectly Nice Neighbors
by Kia Abdullah