Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Do fences make good neighbours?

by Meredith Jaffe

The story of how The Fence came to exist is a story in parts. 

I was writing another novel when the character Gwen, the elderly protagonist of The Fence, appeared in my head. She was persistent, so I’d write a few words about her, saving her for later.

Meredith Jaffe
Over time, her neighbours Babs and Val joined her. Pretty soon I knew they’d all been living in the same street since early in their married lives. I knew Babs would die and new neighbours would move in. Apart from that, I had no story. 

However, life has a way of throwing ideas at you when you’re a writer, even if at first you don’t have a clue how to use them

In this case, our neighbours of ten years decided to downsize. The couple who bought their home was a generation younger with a young son and big plans for their first ever house. And they wanted a fence. To be fair, that came as no surprise. But what they wanted and what we were prepared to agree to were worlds apart. 

It soon became apparent that people invest a lot of emotional energy into fences and I began to wonder why. Then it dawned on me: Gwen had her story.

What makes writing about fences fascinating is not what they are but what they mean. Fences loom large in our psyche from the immense like The Great Wall of China to our own suburban walls. The fences we build around ourselves define our boundaries and keep what matters to us contained within. They speak to our secret anxieties and our desire to protect what is ours. 

However, think about anytime you have wandered the streets of your own neighbourhood. See a gigantic hedge and you’re immediately intrigued. What are they trying to hide? Impenetrable fences are not only an invitation to curious outsiders, they are advertising for whatever lays beyond.

Our language is rich with fence imagery. The grass is always greener on the other side. The phrase sitting on the fence became fashionable in the 1880s. We build emotional walls, we compartmentalize and when we feel we have damaged relationships we talk of mending fences. Is it any wonder their tangible counterpart stirs great emotion inside us?

So, back to Gwen. 

Her new neighbours are also a young family, although not the one from real life. Francesca and her brood are far, far worse. The issue of whether or not to build a fence would be a short novel indeed were it not for the fact it acted as a springboard to talk about a whole lot of other fascinating issues. Such as, the difference in attitudes to raising children between my parent’s generation and the generation after mine. Gwen is a woman born before women’s lib, Francesca is a product of it. Has feminism given us a good hand or are we still missing a few cards? Was it ever possible to have it all – career, family, economic freedom – at the same time? It’s not only fences that divide opinion.

Researching fence stories made me shake my head in horror. That people have actually died because of neighbourly disputes is terrible. 

Conversely, some neighbour stories are hilarious for the ridiculous lengths people are willing to go to prove a point—as long as it’s not happening to you! 

The best part of publishing The Fence will be hearing everyone else’s fence stories. I’m guessing it will be quite a collection!

Meredith Jaffe will be speaking about her experience as a new author in the session 'Making an entrance: Debut fiction writers' with fellow panelists Nathan Besser and Lexi Landsman, moderated by Alison Green, on Sunday August 28, 4:30pm - 5:30pm at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival. 

Meredith will also lead the session 'The Keeper of Secrets: In Conversation with Julie Thomas', where author Julie Thomas will reflect on the Jewish stories that inspired her two novels that are set during and in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

Book today at www.sjwf.org.au!

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