Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 19, 2018

The Family Next Door (2018), by Sally Hepworth

I’ve been reading some sober books recently, the latest being Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist (my review is coming).  Its exploration of bushfire arson so unsettled me that I wanted to read something less harrowing, and opted for Sally Hepworth’s The Family Next Door, which has been on my TBR since I went to Hepworth’s author event at Beaumaris Books earlier this year.

The Family Next Door is engaging light reading, with an ‘issue’ at its heart.  As Hepworth explained at the author talk, post-natal depression is a serious problem and one which is often hidden because of feelings of shame.  In this novel Essie is a young mother living in a beige suburb when exhaustion and depression combine to trigger events: she takes the baby for a walk to settle her but ends up abandoning the baby in the park.  The baby is found, Essie gets some treatment and all seems well, until the second baby comes along.

One of the themes from the book that Hepworth mentioned in her talk was the contemporary preoccupation with social media image, and what the true cost of that might be.  All the characters in the book are Instagram-worthy, apparently conforming to the image of domestic married bliss.  But while they hashtag their lives, they don’t really have any friends with whom they can unburden themselves and be real.  Essie, despite what appear to be benign circumstances, is isolated and alone.  And as in many a novel with a blurb that features the overworked word ‘secrets’, the characters all have a hidden side to their seemingly perfect lives.

Most of the ‘secrets’ are the usual ones: infidelity of one sort or another.  But that doesn’t make them any less painful for the characters to deal with.  Hepworth presents an empathetic view of the agonising choices that have to be made: how and when to tell, how much to tell, who else to tell, and then the big one: whether to repair the marriage or abandon it.

The narrative tension, however, does not depend on what are, sadly, these everyday dilemmas.  The novel is told (more or less chronologically) from the PoV of each of the major characters: Essie; her neighbours Fran and Ange; Essie’s ever-supportive mother Barbara who lives in the same street; and the recent arrival Isabelle, the only one who is single and childless, and is not quite who she seems.  But, beginning with a preface, italicised segments from an unknown mother’s past leak into the narrative, enabling the reader to connect the elements of a mystery birth.  A sense of suspense emerges as the story reaches its climax.

I can imagine that book groups would tackle the what-if questions about marriage and its issues with gusto, but I suspect that the author would also be hoping that they’d be exploring ways in which as individuals we can better connect with those around us, reaching out to offer companionship to those who are struggling, especially new mothers who might be finding that the reality doesn’t match up to the image of perfect motherhood.  The photographer husband in The Family Next Door has made a success of taking ‘imperfect’ family photos: the toddler throwing a tantrum while the rest of the family smiles grimly and so on.  We probably all need to see more of those ones…

Available from Fishpond: The Family Next Door and of course from Beaumaris Books.

Also see Theresa Smith’s review at this link.

Author: Sally Hepworth
Title: The Family Next Door
Publisher: Pan Macmillan, 2018, 328 pages
ISBN: 9781760552176
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Beaumaris Books.








  1. Chloe Hooper was just packing up her books at Fullers bookstore as I was coming in to book club mtg last month. I missed her talk but want to read her book. The Family Next Door sounds good. I’ve been reading about the depression a lot of people feel when absorbed too much with the perfect lives displayed on Instagram. It’s become a real issue evidently. I always try to smile or chat to young mums if I can when out as it must be so hard. Especially when they are left alone to raise their kids. I enjoyed your review. I look forward to hearing about the Arsonist.


    • By coincidence, the latest QE arrived today, and it’s called Net Loss, the Inner Life in the Digital Age. It appears to explore some of what we are saying here, that social media is making us feel a bit uneasy.
      I’ve been a bit slack about reading the QEs as they’ve arrived (this always happens to me with subscriptions!) but I am keen to read this one and see what Sebastian Smee has to say about it.


      • Laughing at not getting to subscriptions. Hopeless, just hopeless over here!


  2. I’ve never seen Instagram, though I get plenty of baby photos on facebook. My daughter has never held back though other mothers in our circle do, whether for the future privacy of the child or fear of photos being misused. But she is surrounded by friends (real and fb) and family, as was her mother. My own mother must have had a harder time, young and alone in a series of strange country towns.


    • What I’ve found since abandoning Facebook (I still have my account, but I only look at it once a week and I don’t post myself any more)… is that I am have more time for catching up with friends… lunches, phone calls, personal birthday/keeping in touch cards.

      And that’s definitely a plus.


  3. […] fifth novel.  I’ve previously read The Things We Keep (still her best novel IMO) and The Family Next Door and once again I approached her novel as light reading with an ‘issue’ (to balance the […]


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