William Kowalskiâ€™s previous novels are multigenerational family epics that trace the effects of the past on the present. His fourth novel, â€˜The Good Neighbourâ€™, explores similar themes through the cautionary tale of the consequences of buying a house on a bad marriage. The marriage in question is that of Francie and Colt Hart, who have been together for nine years without suspecting how bad their marriage really is. Francie considers herself a poet, despite the fact that she has written only 10 poems in the last nine years, â€œall of them failures of inspiration and styleâ€. Colt (short for Coltrane) is a successful stock trader who derives more pleasure from making his money than from the company of his wife. For Colt, the frenzied atmosphere of the dealing floor is â€œblissfully loud. It had the same effect on Colt that the sound of waves had on sea turtlesâ€.
Driving out of New York into Pennsylvania one afternoon, Francie and Colt come across Adencourt, an empty 19th-century house built by Captain Victor T Musgrove, a hero of the Mexican-American war. In a series of â€œhistorical digressionsâ€ we learn more about Musgrove and his family. Of his 10 children, five died in infancy and were buried in a plot at the back of the house. Colt is horrified by the discovery of a cemetery on his property and insists on its removal. His decision dismays not only an increasingly disillusioned Francie but the last direct descendant of the Musgroves, who happens to be their neighbour. The final character in this chamber drama is Francieâ€™s younger brother, Michael, who turns up looking for a place to hide; he is in trouble with a gang of drug dealers for taking off with 10 kilos of cannabis - which is stowed in his car.
Kowalskiâ€™s gift for characterisation ensures that the division between Francie as a sensitive poet and Colt as a soulless slave of capitalism is less clear-cut than at first appears. It becomes clear that Francieâ€™s passivity is largely the product of antidepressant-induced apathy. Once released from their smoothing-out effects, she becomes a more forceful, if less likeable, person. Whereas Francie goes back to being the person she used to be, Colt is forced to think about leading a new life altogether. Thankfully, this doesnâ€™t involve a complete repudiation of capitalism. (The Good Neighbour by William Kowalski, 406pp, Doubleday)