I’ve been an Ania Ahlborn fan for years, ever since reading The Bird Eater – my first purchase on my beloved Kindle Fire. This woman’s novels are amazing; atmospheric settings, engaging and breathtakingly layered characters, and all the while the suspense cranks until you cry for mercy. My favorite novel of hers, Seed, was also her first – and what a dark horror ride that one is!
The Neighbors is the fourth book of hers I’ve read (her second published novel), and I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, some of the negative reviews surprised me. Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I cannot agree with most of the criticism. I’ll admit, The Bird Eater and Seed are still my favorites; but, I would certainly read this again.
The story begins with Andrew (Drew to most, Andy to some), a young man fleeing a broken home after abandoning his alcoholic, agoraphobic mother. He moves into the suburbs with an old friend, someone he bonded with in childhood but they lost touch over the years. Next door is the most beautiful home he’s ever seen, occupied by the most perfect older couple – Harlow and Red. But, as is so often the case, no couple is perfect and there is something dark beneath their flawless surface.
Beware, Spoilers Ahead!
To me, this tale had almost a fairy tale element – poor Drew, a lost boy with a good heart, believes he found paradise. The enchanting house immediately draws his attention (not so different from a witch’s gingerbread house). Harlow offers Drew the love and validation he’d always yearned for, immediately luring him in with hospitality as sweet and tempting as her homemade cookies. Red is capable, confident, and knowledgeable – everything Drew missed after his own father ran off. Of course, he fell victim to their act because he yearns for it to be true – after all, his parents abandoned him so long ago. Harlow senses his need and it attracts her, even proclaiming during one of her PoV moments: He’s perfect!
Some of the complaints in other reviews mention that Drew seems too innocent, too clueless. And yes, sometimes Harlow is a bit cartoonish as a villain. Others felt that certain plot points appeared too easy, too obvious, and wondered how the other characters missed key hints or fell for such heavy-handed manipulation. Fair to a point, but these issues weren’t extreme enough to break my immersion. Also, it’s worth mentioning that sometimes we feel like characters are supposed to know everything we do as the reader. All due respect, folks, but that’s not the way it works! The characters are limited by their own perception. They are not omniscient like us…hence, why I thought these characters delivered convincing performances.
I could not put this book down, reading it in two sittings. Maybe it was Drew and his terrible childhood, which I completely empathized with. Yes, he’s way too innocent and missed so many red flags. But he wanted this to be real. Everything that Harlow offered filled the most painful, gaping needs that haunted him – not just a mother, but a friend, confidant, and later, a lover. I appreciated his naivete, which was somehow endearing instead of being annoying. I know what it’s like to want so badly to trust someone, to believe what they offer is genuine. To be so grateful for kindness, love, and respect after surviving so much despair. So, in my opinion, Ahlborn did her job. A protagonist should never be perfect, all-knowing, and too powerful. He/she has to struggle with flaws and stumble on the path, otherwise how will they capture our attention and invite conflict into the narrative?
Harlow was a complex and interesting villain, her motivations and thoughts layered with shades of gray that eventually darkened to irredeemable black. For most of the story, even when her murderous tendencies were revealed, I still felt a certain pity for her. She lost her mother to horrific tragedy. No one else ever saw her as anything other than an object, a beautiful girl only good for a roll in the hay – even her own father (ugh!). Not until Red, anyway, and later Drew, who grew to love her (although arguably, Red does a far better job of this because his love is truly unconditional). She’s able to manipulate the men around her easily because she is so beautiful – a common phenomenon referred to in psychology as the Halo Effect. How could someone so lovely be evil? But that is also why this adage exists – Looks can be deceiving.
Of course, when the big reveal comes and Harlow leaps past the point of no return, I definitely wanted to see her punished. What she did to her innocent son was inexcusable. There’s no coming back from something so wicked and cruel. It’s a horror we see in the real world, how someone who was abused can occasionally turn into an abuser; they continue the cycle, hurting others even though they know exactly how devastating it was to be a victim. But still, high marks to Ahlborn because even when Harlow was sometimes too much – too extra, the kids might say – she was fascinating to watch. And despite the initial sympathy she inspired, I heartily cheered for her downfall.
In conclusion, I would recommend this book to horror fans but also to people who love a good suspense/psychological thriller. Think Disturbia or The Stepford Wives – when seemingly perfect suburban life is revealed to be rotten beneath its alluring surface, and the posh neighbors we admire or envy turn out to be monsters. Domestic terror, one might say – can you really be safe in and around your home? What goes on behind your neighbors’ closed doors, and can it slink out to get you?
Give this story a chance, and/or another one of Ania Ahlborn’s amazing and entertaining novels. Just remember to read them with the deadbolt in place and keep a bright light burning. Overall: 4.5/5 stars!