Sitting on ‘The Fence’

‘The Fence’ by Meredith JafféPan Macmillan Australia 2016 Reviewed by Jennifer McDonald

I've never been a fan of reality TV shows, often calling them 'unreality TV' for their ridiculous propositions and scripted conflicts. It seems odd to try and pass off something that is highly orchestrated as being 'real' when most of the stuff that happens in everyday life actually is 'stranger than fiction'. In her debut novel The Fence, Meredith Jaffé achieves the diametric opposite of an 'unreality TV' show, deftly taking a fictional suburban scenario and making it all too real, highly believable and what’s more, compelling.

A small confession here, with apologies to Meredith. When I first read the back cover of the book the idea of a story centring on a dispute between neighbours over a fence didn't exactly inspire me.  I wondered if I could ever be drawn into a story about a suburban scuffle that, while fictional, seems so very real and prevalent to the point of being formulaic. These things occur in just about any urban locale one might care to name! 'Too close to home,' I said to myself and yet, all my misgivings quickly flew out the window of my own suburban lounge room within the first few pages of The Fence.

The story starts with Gwen Hill, a lady of advancing years who's raised a family, made life-long friends and established and nurtured an impressive garden in a quiet cul-de-sac on Sydney's leafy north shore. The decline and eventual passing of her next-door neighbour and best friend on the street triggers cataclysmic changes to Gwen's idyllic suburban existence, not the least of which is the sale of her neighbour's house and the arrival of the young Desmarchelliers-Boyd family.

This family is straight out of trendy inner-city suburb central casting with kindergarten-aged twins, a toddler and a babe in arms, two designer dogs, stay-at-home dad and career-oriented mum, the latter being the other key protagonist in the story. Francesca, or Frankie Desmarchelliers, is hoping this tree-change to the outer suburbs will be a new lease of life for her young family while serving the dual purpose of keeping her errant husband out of harm’s way, if you get the drift.

Nothing but a carefully-tended, much adored crab apple tree boundary separates Gwen's house and garden from that of her new neighbours, a boundary that's been more than sufficient for privacy in the past while allowing easy access from either property  From the moment they arrive the Desmarchelliers-Boyd children and dogs seem almost fatally attracted to Gwen's garden, trampling the garden beds, picking primulas without invitation and defecating on the pristine lawn (the dogs not the kids). And then there's Gwen's husband Eric's retirement man-cave which is brimming with word-working projects and dangerous looking tools, the always open door of which is like an enduring invitation to mischief and injury.

No doubt used to the cheek-by-jowl inner-city life where gardens and communing with neighbours are just this side of foreign concepts, Frankie is horrified at the 'prying' Gwen and the osmotic boundary between their properties. She announces immediately that a fence will be constructed between the properties to ensure the safety of her young human and canine brood.  What you might think will unfold as a predictable story of an unseemly suburban scuffle turns out to be anything but.  Small slights, spats and inconveniences quickly snowball into major dramas with life-changing effects, all while 'the fence' stands as a grim, metaphorical sentinel over the proceedings.

Meredith tells the tale in a seasonal fashion alternating between Gwen and Frankie's perspective and interspersed with timely, allegorical excerpts from a gardening column that Gwen writes for ‘Outback+Outdoors’ magazine. I found this 'dual perspective' approach incredibly beguiling and vexing at the same time. I dearly wanted to come down on one side or the other of the fence (if you'll pardon the pun), barracking for Gwen or Frankie depending on who's perspective resonated with me the most. However, I found myself unable to take one neighbour's side over the other thanks to Meredith's detailed (but not overbearing) descriptions of what was going on in both Gwen's and Frankie's minds at any one time. It allowed me to make up my own mind about when either character was deserving of sympathy or being totally unreasonable - a very cool technique, artfully executed.

Apart from learning an awful lot about seasonal gardening from Gwen’s fictional magazine columns, The Fence also sheeted home the message that when one walks a mile in the other person's gumboots (in the case of Gwen) or patent leather corporate heels (in the case of Frankie) it is nigh on impossible to do anything other than sit on the fence.

Click here to buy your copy of ‘The Fence’ by Meredith Jaffé from Booktopia.