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.
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.