I had heard a bit of a buzz about this novel and so I was excited to find it on NetGalley and be approved. You might have heard of this novel about race and friendship, written in collaboration by a Black woman and a White woman – and I heartily recommend this page-turner.

Christine Pride and Jo Piazza – “We Are Not Like Them”

(23 August 2021, NetGalley)

Real change in this world is only going to happen if we keep talking to one another. Shutting down and pushing people away won’t accomplish anything.

The authors’ note makes it clear that this is a special and ground-breaking work, a very modern novel looking at issues that are current nowadays, but also universal issues about friendship and when two very different people are friends. Edited to add: given some of the early comments below, I should probably make it clear that the book has alternate chapters written from the perspectives of the two main characters, although I don’t know whether each author wrote only one character.

Riley and Jen have been friends since they were small and Jen, who comes from a poor and shaky background, was dumped by her slipshod mum on Riley’s grandma for child-minding. Riley’s family is secure and whole, two parents, brother and sister, loving grandma. Riley goes on to university and becomes a high-flying news presenter, moving up the ranks through the local stations and hoping to make anchor, groomed to within an inch of her life and becoming a local celebrity. Jen has married a safe man after years of hopping around dodgy ones, and is now finally pregnant, but not doing so well, not well-off, not too well-educated and still with that slipshod mum in and out of her life.

When Jen’s husband, who wasn’t a police officer when she got together with him but felt he wanted meaning in his life and followed his dad and brother into the force, shoots a teenager and is a news celebrity, of course Riley, who’s come back to town for a new job, is assigned to his case. As if that’s not enough problems for Riley and Jen, Jen and her husband are White; Riley and the teenager, Justin, are Black, and it’s 2019. So while their community opens up along fault lines of race and blame, so does Riley and Jen’s friendship.

A book like this probably need to be a little bit didactic. Jen certainly does all the standard non-ally, White privilege things, from claiming that she can’t be a racist because her best friend is Black to not speaking up when other White people display racism to claiming not to see race. Her sister in law pushes back against racism and the police closing ranks, having been to unconscious bias training in her nursing work. It does kind of tick the boxes in that respect, but then it’s stuff that we are reading in non-fiction books and it’s potentially more useful and will reach more of the audience it perhaps needs to in the form of a novel. Riley is not without her flaws, too – she doesn’t share much emotionally, so maybe blaming Jen for not understanding her experiences of life is not entirely valid when she has never shared them with her, and there’s a lost relationship back in the South that might have ended for this reason, too.

What saves the book is the impressively compelling story-telling, the side characters, the lovely bond Riley has with her grandma. There’s a very powerful scene where Riley and her parents go back to the house they originated from, and Riley learns more of the history of her family, including horrific racist incidents she wasn’t aware of previously. This sets the book in its context, and shows how her grandma, her parents and now Riley and the next generation are facing the same issues again and again, with seemingly no resolution.

But there is hope. There’s the promise of a full and frank conversation, where both Riley and Jen can share how they really feel and Riley can let Jen know authentically how she experiences life (there’s an element of the onus being put on her to share her trauma, however she is described as being closed off from Jen, and maybe Jen will look at Riley’s social media or news videos and take note herself of the racism there, too). And the quote at the top of my review is Riley’s mum talking to Riley, revealing her own feelings for once instead of modelling coping and not talking about things to her daughter.

Sometimes you just need to be around someone who loved you before you were a fully formed person. It’s like finding your favorite sweatshirt in the back of the closet, the one you forgot why you stopped wearing, and once you find it again you sleep in it every night.

It’s a novel that looks at the issues and is powerful and moving, but is also a good read. It would be an ideal book group read.

Thank you for HQ Stories for selecting me to read this novel via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “We Are Not Like Them” was published on 05 October 2021.