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The Boy Next Door, By Irene Sabatini

Engrossing tale comes out of Africa

Two days after I turned 14 the son of our neighbour set his stepmother alight", begins one of the most engaging novels about inter-racial love to be published this century. Lindiwe, narrator of The Boy Next Door, lives in Zimbabwe just as it has achieved independence in 1980. Her family live in a pink house in a posh part of Bulawayo, recently purchased from their dysfunctional white neighbours, the McKenzies. Upwardly mobile, the Bishops go to a largely white church, send Lindiwe to a snobby girls' school, and do not want her to have anything to do with Ian, the white boy who is jailed for his stepmother's murder.

Yet the two are drawn together despite Ian's foul-mouthed, thick-skinned racism. Equally burdened with difficult parents, neither studious Lindiwe nor impetuous Ian can resist each other's company, and both long to run away together. Events conspire to make this impossible, even though something that will inevitably draw them back together is begun.

What makes this novel so interesting is that it is a story about the difficulties of first love drawn against a vivid background of political change. We all know something of the sufferings of Zimbabweans, black and white, under Mugabe, but Sabatini shows the gradual collapse of her "country of eternal optimists" with a hundred swift, sure touches and a rich cast of characters, heightening tension and mystery. Why does Maphosa the volatile former guerrilla live with them? Why did Ian's father sell the posh house? What is Lindiwe not telling Ian?

Ian is strongly drawn, as he lurches towards greater sensitivity, thanks to a stay in Soweto. His appealing love of Africa, nature and Lindiwe, and his failure to perceive why The Lion King, or his friends calling Lindiwe "girl", might be "racialistic" are largely conveyed through dialogue and comedy. Their love survives ruin, deception and a war that "twisted everything".

Sabatini's novel – which won this year's Orange Award for New Writers – has the jerky quality of many debuts, a banal title and could have been pruned by about a fifth. However, it is entertaining, ambitious and packed with news from elsewhere, leavened by the precious optimism of youth. Don't miss it.

Amanda Craig's novel 'Hearts and Minds' is published by Abacus