Top 10 novels about neighbours | Ayşegül Savaş

In my childhood, my family lived in a commune of 20 identical yellow houses on the outskirts of Copenhagen. There was dinner six days a week at the “common house”. The neighbours also shared maintenance duties, prepared after-school snacks, kept a shop without a shopkeeper, and celebrated most holidays together. We were the only non-Danes at the commune, and our arrival was at once exciting and disconcerting for the group. We were too loud, our house was too bright, we had family and friends visiting from Turkey for months on end. But we were also the most popular cooks at the commune, spending out of pocket, beyond the dinner budgets, to make roast lamb and feta pastries. The commune was an experiment in living together, as equals, though to me, it was also an education in all the ways that we were different.

I’m fascinated by lives that unravel in close proximity. What draws me to contemplate life as a model for fiction is the crossover of intimacy and distance, the ways in which lives interact, get entangled, or pass each other by. Neighbours offer a unique vantage point in fiction, because they witness much of life on the surface but may be blind to the depths. The friendship of neighbours is also interesting to me: neighbours must maintain a delicate balance of courtesy for all the living together that lies ahead.

In my novel White on White, the painter Agnes begins to tell pieces of her life story to the art history student renting the flat below her studio. At first, the student is fascinated by Agnes and eager for her friendship, but as Agnes becomes unhinged, the student chooses the anonymity of being a neighbour, choosing to avoid emotional responsibility.

The following books investigate lives at close proximity, at once familiar and distant.

1. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, translated by John E Woods
Hans Castorp arrives at a sanatorium to visit his cousin and ends up staying for a very long time. This is a book about time, and about death, but it is told through the interactions with the sanatorium’s patients over dinners and lunches of small talk. Everyone is sick, and like well-mannered neighbours, everyone avoids the subject. But the residents’ shared fate creates an unspoken bond and a powerful backdrop for the novel.

2. A House in Norway by Vigdis Hjorth, translated by Charlotte Barslund
Alma, a tapestry artist, rents out the annexe of her house to a Polish family, whose lives she witnesses from her own window over the course of six years. The novel’s premise puts the artist’s liberal views into uneasy practice. Alma has always taken pride on her progressive values, but discovers, as soon as the Polish family moves in, that she is not as tolerant as she thought. This is a brilliant book about immigration, what it means to live together, and the fragile ideals of the European project.

3. Scorpionfish by Natalie Bakopoulos
This atmospheric novel epitomises the intimate distance of being a neighbour. Mira returns to Athens after her parents’ deaths and on her first night meets a sea captain who lives in the apartment across from hers. Both of them are grieving in different ways, and they form an unusual friendship, exchanging night-time stories across their balconies. Mira’s walks around the city, her dinners and drinks with friends and her afternoons of swimming are punctuated by the nightly return home, to the balcony, to confide in a near-stranger.

4. My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump
Nadia and Ange are schoolteachers who have built respectable, middle-class lives for themselves. One day, a strange wound appears on Ange’s stomach. While the whole community slowly shuns the teachers, a neighbour, Nogent, whom they had always disdained, comes to help them in their vulnerable state and moves in to care for them. Marie NDiaye is a master of creating menacing, off-kilter worlds that speak to the truth of human experience.

5. Friends and Dark Shapes by Kavita Bedford
This book, about a group of housemates in Sydney, beautifully maps the spaces of loneliness and intimacy in the midst of gentrification, temporary work, personal grief and collective joy. One of the pleasures of Bedford’s novel is following the housemates on their daily routines, going to gallery openings for free drinks, hanging out aimlessly in the garden, discussing best ways of stocking up on toilet paper, and going to ocean pools.

6. Monkey Grip by Helen Garner
“In the old brown house on the corner, a mile from the middle of the city, we ate bacon for breakfast every morning of our lives. There were never enough chairs for us all to sit up at the meal table.” So begins Monkey Grip, another novel about communal living, this time in 1970s Melbourne. Nora is a single mother and in love with the smack-addicted Javo. She changes houses and partners, in new reconfigurations exploring what it means to live together. The novel’s loose, diaristic style perfectly captures the fluidity of friendships, love, sex and cohabitation.

7. By the Sea by Abdulrazak Gurnah
One afternoon, Saleh Omar arrives at Gatwick airport from Zanzibar, seeking asylum. He is taken to a B&B where other men, from Kosovo and the Czech Republic, are lodging. Though they share the same strange accommodation, they know little about the histories that have brought them here. The only person in England who knows Omar is the son of the man whose name Omar has taken, once a neighbour in Zanzibar. When the two meet, a story of the past is revealed, at once intimate and mysterious, the fates of the men entangled profoundly.

Jim Broadbent and Tom Felton in the 1997 film adaptation of The Borrowers.
Jim Broadbent and Tom Felton in the 1997 film adaptation of The Borrowers. Photograph: Working Title Films/Allstar

8. The Borrowers by Mary Norton
How could I not include this enchanting book, which I read and re-read in the years that my family lived in the Danish commune. It must, in part, be responsible for my fascination with neighbours and their secret lives. The borrowers are tiny people who live in the walls and under the floorboards of an English house and “borrow” from the big humans. Though the house’s tenants are unaware of their miniature neighbours, one boy starts a friendship with the young borrower, Arrietty Clock.

9. A Luminous Republic by Andrés Barba, translated by Lisa Dillman
Thirty-two children appear in the town of San Cristóbal bordering the jungle, speaking a strange language of their own. No one knows where they have come from nor where they disappear to each night. The novel taps into our fears of the other, the ways we draw rigid boundaries, and our desire to tame the wild. A profound work about sharing physical and psychological universes.

10. Free Love by Tessa Hadley
Hadley’s latest novel, set in 60s London, is about 44-year-old Phyllis who lives in the suburbs with her husband and children. One night, at the edge of a pond, she kisses a young family friend: her life is changed. Two sets of neighbours brilliantly portray Phyllis’s split existence. There are the Holmeses across the street, at whose party Phyllis feels suffocated. And there is Barbara, the nurse from Granada, who is the neighbour of Phyllis’s young lover in Ladbroke Grove. These neighbours embody not only the starkly different social worlds that Phyllis inhabits, but also what it means for a woman reeling out of her assigned roles to be looked at by society.

White on White by Ayşegül Savaş is published by Vintage (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.