The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso [Review]

woman next door

Every now and then you find a book which demonstrates that good storytelling doesn’t require pyrotechnics or literary gymnastics. Of course there will always be room for authors (and their readers) who want to push the boundaries and experiment with time frames, point of view and punctuation (or lack of).  But if the story is as good and the characterisation as sharp as Yewande Omotoso has delivered in The Woman Next Door, then there really isn’t any necessity for uber stylisation.

This is the story of two women. They are neighbours in the upmarket enclave of Katterijn in the suburb of Constantia, Cape Town. Hortensia James is black. Marion Agostino is white. Both are successful career women. Both are recently widowed. Both are strongly opinionated.   They hate each other.

Hortensia is a renowned textile designer originally from Barbados but who has lived most of her life outside her native land. In the opening chapters we meet her as a prickly octagenarian whose husband is close to death. She joins the Katterijn residents’  committee knowing that as the only black member  she will not be welcome. The meetings themselves are dull but Hortensia keeps returning “to mock them, to point out to them they were hypocrites.”

At the meetings her chief antagonist is Marion Agostino, the chairperson and her next door neighbour. Marion has made the residents’s committee her personal fiefdom, dominating the discussions and silencing all challenges to her authority. Having grown up in South Africa she has strong beliefs in the segregation of the country’s black and white population.  To her:

…. most black people were dangerous and they were causing trouble…As a young adult she had explained her country to herself in a way her children were refusing to adopt. With all their prodding it became difficult to see only what was comfortable, to keep looking away from what she’d rather not see. It was in this battle that Marion lost all possibility for happiness.’ 

When a legal claim is submitted by a black family that they are entitled to part of the Katterijn estate the scene is set for a battle between the two women. Marion sees the claim as threatening the stability of house prices. Hortensia believes such comments are driven by little more than bigotry.

The attitudes of these women are so diametrically opposed that it seems hardly likely they could ever learn to accept each other let alone find a way towards friendship. But an unforeseen event does force them to reconsider their relationship and to begin pulling down the armoury of sniping and bickering. As they progress towards acceptance and perhaps the beginning of a friendship of sorts, they are forced to reconsider their lives and the forces that have made them so angry and bitter.

For Hortensia we discover that the acerbic, scathing comments  she dishes out to everyone is the  persona she’s constructed to protect herself from the past.  It had started when, taken to England as a small child, she experienced suspicion and hostility. In college for example she was frozen out by her fellow students:

Hard stares from fellow students and lecturers alike; stares from people who looked through you, not at you; stares intent on disappearing you; and stares you fought by making yourself solid. People found it civilised to imitate the sound of a chimpanzee whenever they passed Hortensia in the corridors.

Success as a designer, a loving marriage with a successful corporate executive and a life together in Nigeria had slain those dragons. But they were reawakened when Hortensia discovered her husband’s infidelity.

She went from just resenting Peter, to the housekeeper, the driver, the market woman. People were slow, simple-minded; they all harboured ill intentions, seemed determined to be unhelpful, especially when their jobs required being of service…  She got good at chopping the legs off people, with no knife, only words. She was always angry and while, initially, she noticed it …  it slowly became what was normal. … Hating after all was a drier form of drowning.

For Marion, the face of control she presents to the world hides the fact that she is deeply worried about  her financial situation. A highly successful architect in her own right she had given up her practice business to raise a family. When her husband died she discovered he’d mismanaged all their affairs. Instead of living out the rest of her life in the style to which she has become accustomed she now faces a string of creditors, poverty and public humiliation. Unsurprisingly she feels angry at what she considers is a betrayal by her husband.

Neither of these women are very likeable characters initially but as we move through the book we do get a deeper appreciation of why they are as they are; and begin to find sympathy for them. The Woman Next Door doesn’t however fit squarely into the category of a ‘feel-good’ novel.  Yes it’s bursting with humour, warmth and sensitivity but it also brims with finely nuanced themes about the experience of the outsider and the nature of man’s capacity to forgive.

Omotoso adroitly places the story of reconciliation between two individuals within a broader theme of reconciliation with the past of a nation. Marion in particular is forced to confront the reality of how the white population treated the country’s black residents. Her researches into the ownership of Katterijn lands reveal some uncomfortable facts about its former existence as a slave estate.

There was a page with names, the script nuclear, smudged. Marion read through some sentences at the bottom, Her teeth came together in her mouth and she tasted something unpleasant at the back of her throat. There were sketches of the different contraptions, straps and turning wheels. In a neat hand someone had explained how far to turn the handle before the first bits of bone would start to break.

It’s Omotoso’s deft handling of the personal and the ‘political’ themes that lifted The Woman Next Door above the ordinary for me. It’s a page turner in the sense the plot is well constructed and the dialogue between the two women so finely tuned that you feel compelled to read on and on. But the almost casual interjections of broader ideas cause you to pause and to reflect.

This is Omotoso’s second novel. It’s well worth reading. It would also make a really good film. I have Judi Dench or Maggie Smith in mind for Marion. Still struggling to think who would be a knock out Hortensia.

 

End Notes

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso was published May 2016 by Random House UK, Vintage Publishing. Thanks to the publishers for providing me with a copy via NetGalley

Yewande Omotoso was born in Barbados. She grew up in Nigeria and moved to South Africa in 1992. Yewande trained as an architect and is a designer, freelance writer, poet and novelist. After completing a Masters degree in Creative Writing, her debut novel Bom Boy was published in 2011 by Modjaji Books. It won the 2012 South African Literary Award for First-Time Published Author, was shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize in South Africa as well as the M-Net Literary Awards 2012, and was the runner-up for the 2013 Etisalat Prize for Literature.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on May 21, 2016, in Book Reviews, Caribbean and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. robinandian2013

    Thank you for recommending this under-rated book. I thought it was very good. I’m so impressed that a young woman (an architect like Marion) can create a clever, warm novel such as this that encompasses both personal and political reconciliation. I’m pleased to see that it made it on to the longlist for this year’s Baileys so hopefully it will reach a wider audience

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  2. This book is phenomenal. I cried at various points. Every line resonated so deeply. I thought Michelle Hurst (who plays Claudette in Orange Is the New Black) would make a superb Hortensia. At any rate, she kept drifting to mind while I was reading the book. Thank you for your excellent review!

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    • I haven’t been watching Orange is the new Black sorry so I don’t know that actress (am I the only person in the world not to be watching the series????) . Glad you enjoyed the book as much as I did

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  3. This sounds good. I wasn’t that interested until the sentence “they hated each other.”

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  4. Great review – love your first paragraph!
    It sounds like her first book might be worth checking out, as well!

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  5. Are you aware of the twitter hashtag #readdiverse2016? Or the blog “Writes of Women”? (https://thewritesofwoman.wordpress.com/). I think your post could qualify for both, and I think it’ an important message (good or bad!) for all to consider that whilst we may be different, often we are the same.

    Hopefully, it’ll give you a wider audience for your blog, whilst giving you some additional enablers (haha, you’re welcome, how’s your TBR?)

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    • I didnt know of either of these Nordie – thanks for giving me the lead. Off to check them out now. I must admit I am not that much of a Twitter user. I blow hot and cold with it

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  6. Haven’t read the book but love the review. Adding to the ever-lengthening to-read list. Re casting…it’s times like this I miss Ruby Dee…thank God we still have Cicely Tyson. She seems like the right age range, she has Caribbean roots, has played African before (in Roots), and cancelling all of that out, she’s a helluva actress and can play any role. Have you ever seen her reading of Sojourner Truth’s Ain’t I a Woman? It’s on YouTube.

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  7. I recently bought this and I’m looking forward to it even more after reading your brilliant review.

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  8. You’re right! It sounds ready-made for an Oscar bait flick. And this sounds like the best reads: page-turning but thought-provoking.

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  9. I’m so pleased to read this review – after trying to be sensible, I gave in this evening and have just now got a copy for myself. It’s good to find out my hopes weren’t misplaced!

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  10. Great review! I had high hopes for this one and it sounds as if I won’t be disappointed.

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  11. It sounds like it would make a great movie alright!

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