The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso
Published: Feb 2017 (First ed May 2016)
Genre: Literary Fiction
Setting: South Africa, Nigeria, UK
Rating: 3 Stars
Hortensia and Marion are next door neighbours in a charming, bougainvillea-laden Cape Town suburb. One is black, one white. Both are successful women with impressive careers behind them. Both have recently been widowed. Both are in their eighties. And both are sworn enemies, sharing hedge and hostility pruned with zeal.
But one day an unforeseen event forces the women together. Could long-held mutual loathing transform into friendship?
Love thy neighbour? Easier said than done.
The Woman Next Door is a book I liked and disliked in varying degrees. It follows two elderly widowed neighbours, Hortensia and Marion living in Post-apartheid South Africa, who share a lot of things - a hedge, strong determined wills, long successful careers behind them and a mutual lifelong hatred for each other. Their hatred exacerbated by the fact that one is black and angry, and the other white and seemingly racist.
As the story unfolds, we witness the development of their uneasy relationship and how both women come to a place of understanding and tolerance of each other. This development is marred by a lot of bickering that very quickly becomes off-putting. What stood out for me was the back story to each of the women and how these stories of loveless marriages, loneliness, motherhood, childlessness, abandonment and aging, taking place on the backdrop of a racist and apartheid era South Africa, festered bitterness and shaped these women’s lives. These are the bits that resonated with me and I believe will resonate with most readers.
I was however not taken by the development of the story. It builds up very slowly and a huge chunk of it dedicated to the cattiness between the two women; and whilst I did find it amusing at first, 150 pages in and I was over it. The backstories are introduced later on, in piecemeal servings, scattered in between cattiness sessions, had I not been convicted that the story was going somewhere, I would have put the book down never to pick it back up again. Both characters are quite flawed and not endearing in any way. And because of the slow build up, by the time we get to understand the ‘why’, I did not care much for either of them.
I loved that the book focuses on elderly characters, which I haven’t found a lot of in my reading. The characters’ perspectives on life is quite sobering in that it made me reflect on what it means to age. Are the decisions I am taking now going to turn me into a Hortensia or Marion in the future? I would hate that. And is there any redeeming grace when you are aged out and stuck in your ways, good or bad? What is the point of it all? These are some of the questions that stuck with me.