Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Review: The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

"Good fences make good neighbors," while often true, isn't particularly the case in Yewande Omotoso's novel, The Woman Next Door. Not even a fence can make the two neighbors, one black and one white, like each other, get along with each other politely, or even just tolerate each other when they pass in the street or encounter each other at neighborhood meetings. In fact, Marion and Hortensia, two women with what should be quite a lot in common, loathe each other and delight in making the other uncomfortable or angry in their well-off suburban Cape Town neighborhood. Both are highly educated and were quite well respected in their chosen fields (textile design for Hortensia and architecture for Marion). Each had a less than ideal marriage and shortly after the opening of the novel with the death of Hortensia's husband, both are widows. In their eighties now, having been neighbors and enemies for years, each of them holds tightly onto her rancor towards the other one. These two irascible women delight in sniping at each other without really knowing each other more than superficially. But when an accident happens and a legal threat to their homes surfaces, Hortensia and Marion are forced into a grudging cooperation.

Compared by many to Grumpy Old Men, this is actually something entirely different. Yes, the two main characters are cantankerous and competitive but they also have the weight of South African history underpinning their sometimes hilarious and sometimes bitter and mean hostilities. Their personal stories wrap around the greater political history of apartheid, slavery, and race in general. Omotoso keeps a light hand on the history, politics, and issues though so as not to make the characters simply foils for past injustice. Hortensia and Marion feel real in their own right with their flaws, occasional nastiness, veiled insecurities, disappointments, and personal problems. It is the women and their relationships, warts and all, that drives the narrative here. There is some humor but in general the novel is more serious than not, taking on race, women's rights, marriage, motherhood (or not), jealousy, aging, and more. I found this to be a worthwhile and enjoyable read if not entirely what I expected.

Of note: this book is one of the Women's National Book Association's Great Group Reads for 2017-2018.

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