That Stranger Next Door by Goldie Alexander (Clan Destine Press, 2014)Reviewed by Dianne Bates
A fictional story, That Stranger Next Door, is nonetheless rooted in actual events that happened in Australia in the 1950s. Ruth Cohen is a fifteen-year old girl growing up in a Melbourne Jewish home she shares with her parents, grandfather Zeida and younger brother Leon. Like girls her age, Ruth has dreams for her future, but unlike her peers (and despite her mother’s ambitions for her), she doesn’t want to become a wife and mother when she grows up; she aspires to a career as a doctor. A scholarship student, she’s certainly clever enough. However, when she meets Patrick O’Sullivan from a wealthy Catholic family, her ambitions fly out of the window.
Invited to Patrick’s home where she meets his overbearing and unlikeable father, she hears political talk at the dinner table which is at odds with the politics of her parents who own a milk bar. Politics and events in Australia thread through this story; the world is in the grips of the Cold War, McCarthyism is rife in America and Australia is reeling from the shock of the Petrov spy affair. Ruth’s father, a former communist, is concerned that ASIO is investigating him, while Patrick’s father works for the right-wing politician, Bob Santamaria.
The story begins with Ruth wakening one night to a mystery; someone has stealthily moved into the flat opposite her home. When she discovers that the new tenant is Eva who never pulls back the curtains or comes outdoors, her active, intelligent mind creates a scenario; she comes to believe that Eva is Evdokia Petrov, the defector. A relationship develops between the two with Eva helping Ruth conceal her secret meetings with Patrick and acting as a romantic sounding board. Meanwhile, Ruth suspects that strangers in black cars near her home are spying on Eva – or are they spying on her father, believing he is a communist spy?
In That Stranger Next Door, Alexander has captured a genuine feel of the period in the way people spoke then, the way they dressed and behaved. Her characters feel real, too, from her depiction of the conflicted Ruth to Patrick’s intelligent, unfulfilled and depressed mother. Patrick’s moodiness and his treatment of Ruth after she loses her virginity to him are very well handled. The politics of the time and the cultural depiction of two diverse families – the Jewish Cohens and the Catholic O’Sullivans – ring true and is a great way of introducing teenager readers to a critical period in Australia’s history.
The story is told from two points of view with Ruth narrating most chapters but Eva telling her story, too – of being born in the Ukraine, forced to become part of the army of slave labour in a German munitions’ factory and eventually coming to Australia. Why Eva is in hiding is not revealed until late in the book. Is she Mrs Petrov? Or is there another reason for the mystery that surrounds her? The last chapter happens fourteen years later when the reader learns of what has become of Ruth and answers whether or not her ambitions were realised.
That Stranger Next Door is an engrossing read; the historical context is woven throughout the fiction to provide a rich background to the lives of two vastly different families with their respective beliefs and problems. Recommended for readers 14+ years.