Thanks to the bible, we are constantly being asked to “love thy neighbour” but in some cases it’s super hard. I, for one, have the pleasure of living next door to a family who make it incredibly tricky to like them. Their constant and loud arguments, weirdly obsessive gardening habits and super barky dog are just a handful of the reasons why they’re firmly situated in my general acquaintances column. In her novel The Woman Next Door, Yewande Omotoso deals with two next door neighbours who can’t stand each other. The pair spend their days bickering and attempting to antagonise each other. They disagree on subjects just for the sake of it and look down on the other for their perceptions of the other’s character. It is a rivalry that goes back years and, thanks to an unexpected turn of events, it is something they will have to face head on.
Though the two women in their 80s seemingly have a lot in common, Hortensia James and Marion Agostino couldn’t be more different. Hortensia is a textile designer who came to live in Cape Town by way of Barbados and London. Marion is an ex-architect and has spent most of her life in South Africa. Marion, a white lady, has difficulty fitting into a post-apartheid society whilst Hortensia finds herself the only black homeowner in a distinctly white district. Marion is a widow who spent her days raising more children than she knew how to love while Hortensia’s husband is dying and she mourns the children she was unable to have. Hortensia made a great name and a tidy nest-egg for herself while Marion’s husband left her with nothing more than a pile of debts. So, it’s safe to say that there is plenty for each of the women to envy about the other.
However, as the novel moves on, we learn that their coldness runs deeper than it seems and the pair are both hiding painful histories. They have become hard because life has left them in that position. Hortensia has been forced to put on a front thanks to other people’s preconceptions of her; ideas that have followed her throughout her life. For her part, Marion was never able to get over the fact she sacrificed her professional dream for her family. Both women have settled into lives that are unfufilling in their own way. It is only after Hortensia’s husband dies and an accident brings the pair under the same roof that they begin to be honest with each other.
Omotoso’s story deals with many huge topics over its relatively small number of pages. Most prominent, of course, is race and the political history of South Africa. The racial tensions that still reside after apartheid are obvious for all to see even if people refuse to acknowledge it. Marion is a throwback to a different time and can’t understand why her children despair of her. Still, when Hortensia refers to her as a racist Marion is quick to correct her. As her relationship with Hortensia changes, Marion is forced to come face-to-face with the realities of prejudice that has plagued South Africa for too long. Omotoso deftly handles the socio-political themes by camouflaging them within the women’s personal journey. As the two women slowly reconcile it highlights the broader idea of racial reconciliation.
Although, the issue of race is only one small part of the novel and Omotoso shows in-depth understanding of marriage, family and human psychology. While giving time to the issue of black and white in terms of race, she assures us that human beings are rarely that binary. The women at the heart of this novel have their negatives and their positives. They are neither wholly good nor bad. The image we portray is rarely the real one and everyone, no matter their background, is hiding all sorts of secrets. Marion and Hortensia are not the easiest characters to love but, by the novel’s end, you will have fallen for their charms… even if they are deeply hidden away.
The Woman Next Door is a delight to read for so many reasons. In her second novel Yewande Omotoso shows great skill to combine difficult and important topics and proves to have insight into people. Her characters feel real and their actions are always understandable. Her narrative rarely falters and flows incredibly well despite the constant flashbacks and time jumps. It never stumbles under the weight the historical significance of its setting but manages to co-exist with this tough issue. I know it took me a fucking age to finish but I can’t recommend this novel enough. It’s the most satisfied I’ve felt in literary terms for a long time.