The Woman Next Door explores the rivalry between two long-time residents of Katterijn, an upscale South African Estate community. Hortensia, an 84-year-old, highly successful, black textile designer whose husband has died after a long illness, is originally from Barbados by way of England. Marion, a white, 81-year-old, ground-breaking architect, is a recent widow left penniless by her husband’s debts. She’s preparing to sell her home and doesn’t how she’ll survive afterward. The women have lived next to each other for twenty years and their dislike of one another is legendary. “It was known that the two women shared hedge and hatred and they pruned both with a vim that belied their ages.”
Hortensia and Marion ruminate on their past lives and how they got to their present circumstances. Left unsettled by revelations in her husband’s will, Hortensia decides to remodel her home. Marion was the architect who designed Hortensia’s house. It was her first completed work and it brought her recognition as an architect. She’d wanted to buy it herself, but circumstances denied her wish twice. Marion rules the homeowner’s committee of their estate so an unexpected claim for restitution by descendants of slaves formerly quartered at Katterijn, weighs on her. She’s a woman who sees objects clearly but is unable or unwilling to see what’s actually happening around her.
An accident with a crane at the beginning of the remodeling leaves Marion’s house in shambles and Hortensia with a debilitating injury. Hortensia detests the nurses sent to care for her and in a series of ingenious scenes sends them all running. Thus the two women, one homeless, and one in need of an adult to stay with her are thrown together. Hortensia plans no interaction with Marion and both retain their dislike for each other until circumstances intervene. Additional plot twists best encountered by the reader, move the narrative toward resolution.
The exquisite writing and the fact that these are not “Hallmark card” women separate this from formulaic fiction about women of a certain age. Hortensia and Marion have more in common with literature’s curmudgeonly men than with the sweet octogenarians sipping tea often portrayed in novels. The Woman Next Door exhibits charm, but it is charm laced with acid as seen in a description of Hortensia. “She got good at chopping off the legs of people with no knife, only words.”
The novel is unique in its portrait of the racist system that empowered Marion and her ilk. Years previously, Marion’s twelve-year-old granddaughter, Lara, asked why there were two different kinds of toilet paper in the house. Marion explained that two-ply was more expensive and “considering her station in life, it seemed perfectly reasonable to expect Agnes (the black housekeeper) to manage with one-ply.” Later Marian asks Agnes why she keeps her toilet rolls in the main pantry and Agnes explains that they aren’t hers. “Ma’am, I buy my own.”
“Why do you buy your own?” Marion asked. Whatever could have changed? She’d been working there for decades and understood the rules.
Agnes, wiping down the speckled marble kitchen counter, shrugged. “I needed something better, Ma’am.”
One day, soon after this conversation, when Agnes was distracted with laundry, Marion stole into the granny-flat to inspect the bathroom. There was the offending toilet paper. Three-ply. It turned her cheeks crimson and (never to be outdone), on her next trip to Woolworth's, Marion selected a large supply of white three-ply toilet roll for herself.”
Only rarely do we have the opportunity to read a novel with entertaining characters who speak in caustic dialogue, a novel that charms us with witty repartee, and one which teaches us the lasting impact of history without preaching at us. The Woman Next Door is that novel.
Summing it Up: The Woman Next Door is enlightening, entertaining, honest, wry, and hope-filled. Reading it embeds you in Cape Town today and as it was under apartheid as you watch two acerbic women recall their lives.
Yewande Omotoso was born in Barbados, grew up in Nigeria, and moved to South Africa in 1992. Bom Boy, her first novel, was shortlisted for several fiction prizes. The Woman Next Door is a finalist for the Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize. Omotoso lives in Johannesburg where she writes and has an architectural practice. Her experiences clearly contribute to the realism of the novel.
Rating: 5 stars
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: February 7, 2017
What Others are Saying:
Publishers Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-250-12457-9
"An intimate, frequently hilarious look at the lives of two extraordinary women in post-apartheid South Africa...Deeply satisfying...The vivid setting and intricate descriptions transport the reader to this very specific time and place, though the crackling dialog and lively, fiercely independent protagonists are universal" Booklist