Luke May, the protagonist of Safe from the Neighbors,provides readers with a strange dilemma: as a character, he is hardly worthy of the masterful language that swirls around him. Luke is a high school history teacher in Loring, Mississippi, and though he seems to like his work—even going so far as to create and offer a local history course—he is a man without ambition or distinction. He is, as he says, “Mr. History.” He bemoans his life of discussing other people’s actions, rather than leading boycotts, taking a stand or otherwise creating history himself. Recently empty-nested, Luke and his wife, a passionate poet, have a ho-hum sex life and a predictable existence.
When Maggie, a childhood friend, returns to Loring to teach French, Luke’s life changes drastically and quickly. In 1962, on the night that riots erupted at Ole Miss on account of James Meredith’s enrollment, Maggie’s father killed her mother. Luke longs to get to the bottom of this years-old mystery, and Maggie provides clues to the puzzle. A sophisticated and single woman, she also adds excitement to Luke’s flat daily life. They have an affair, and their passion escalates as Luke delves deeper into events from the past.
Although the reader may sympathize with Luke’s desires, he is not a particularly likeable character. But that’s fine, because Safe from the Neighbors is not a character- or plot-driven novel. It’s a novel of memorable words and phrases; of intense introspection; of images depicting the way we interact with people, both today and during the Civil Rights era of the Mississippi Delta. There are moments in Safe from the Neighbors—quiet observations about a gesture or a scene frozen in Luke’s memory—that will stick with the reader long after the book is finished.
The murder mystery and the tension created by Luke’s adultery will draw readers in to this novel. But it is Yarbrough’s beautifully crafted sentences that will keep them riveted to the end.