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Neighbors and Other Stories by Diane Oliver: Crisp prose that can humble the reader to silence

This collection revolving around the lives of black Americans gathers work by formidable talent Diane Oliver, who died in 1966 in a motorcycle crash aged 22

Neighbors and Other Stories
Neighbors and Other Stories
Author: Diane Oliver
ISBN-13: 978-0571386086
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Guideline Price: £9.99

Neighbors and Other Stories is a posthumous collection of the work of Diane Oliver, who died in 1966 in a motorcycle crash at the age of 22. However, the work of this formidable talent transcends her tragic life story.

The nightmarish reality of life for the black American community in the Jim Crow era alongside the complex reality of a policy of racial integration sets the backdrop for Oliver’s work.

“Neighbors,” author Tayari Jones writes in the introduction to the book, “evokes the feeling of sorting through a time capsule, sealed and buried in the yard of a Southern African Methodist Episcopal church in the early 1960s.”

There is a sense, in reading these stories, of looking through a window. The reader is observing the characters in their daily lives beset by discrimination, poverty and hunger. They aren’t performing; they are just trying to get on with it.


In the titular story, a black family face the moral dilemma of what is best for their son and what is best for their race, in deciding whether to break the colour line by sending their son to a newly integrated “white” school.

Almost in direct response to this dilemma, in the next story, we observe the surrealist mental decline of young black college freshman who is “tired of being the Experiment”.

In this fashion, the stories appear to be in conversation with each other. One before answering the question of an alternate reality, should characters have chosen a different route.

If a husband deserts his wife and family, in one story, he returns in another. A character is left waiting in a doctor’s office, wondering “why more of us ain’t dead”. Another is visited just in time for the doctor to lay her “in a nice blue casket”. Entertaining the reader falls low on the list of these characters’ priorities – frankly they are too damn busy – and this is precisely the reason that Oliver’s work sings.

It would be reductive to consider Oliver’s stories “protest fiction” at the expense of acknowledging her remarkable literary talent. The story-telling outshines the political context. Hers is crisp prose with a shuddering ability to humble the reader to silence: “it was almost as if the little fellow was afraid to breathe”. A sparkling talent lost too soon.

Brigid O'Dea

Brigid O'Dea, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health