Book review: The Woman Next Door

A tough-minded wisdom permeates this story of two elderly neighbours. While the cover is garlanded with the bougainvillea flower it could as easily show a bed of nettles or a crown of thorns. 

Yewande Omotoso

Vintage, £8.99

The caustic attitudes and bitter words that are exchanged are rife from the beginning. Both women are living alone in an affluent area of Cape Town. 

The relationship between Hortensia, who is black, and Marion, who is white, is quite poisonous.

Yewande Omotoso eases us into to the strife between them by pitching them in together at a rather stuffy and self-regarding community association meeting. 

It opens like a comedy of manners where the two women battle it out over trifles, tempting the reader to imagine that perhaps the stakes will rise and it wXill become a bigger class of a showdown between these two old warhorses.

What surprises about the book is the very real depth of observation. While the lightness of tone is maintained there are reservoirs of sadness to be explored in both of their lives. Omotoso is a lovely writer. She weighs out and modulates the details of her stories with consummate skill and ease.

When Hortensia’s husband Peter dies she stands at his graveside as people she hardly knows approach her to mumble platitudes that she barely hears. I feel like spitting in his grave, she tells us. 

Only then does she tell us of his infidelity. She despairs in particular at his lack of imagination in the lame excuses to cover his affair.

As she folds these elements in with each other she gradually introduces us to her past, the absolutely unsubtle racism she experienced at university and earlier still her relationship with her mother. 

Keeping with this part of the story she then describes the arrival of Peter in her life and then returns to the much later infidelity and a day when she follows him.

There is nothing showy about the way in which she moves back and forward in time to select telling details. Maybe it is no more than a good writer does but she does it so well. The juxtaposing of moments of hope and idealism with times of hurt make the novel quite a moving read.

The black and white aspect of the conflict between Hortensia and Marion is present but is not overstated. There is never a feeling that the characters are ciphers used for the exploration of truth and reconciliation. 

Such concepts are present but the characters run far too deep in terms of their flesh and blood, laughter and tears, for them to become lost in the service of something weighty and conceptual. 

The very real weight of the book comes from the beautifully drawn characters themselves.

In saying that it is lovely book, Hortensia is in many ways a viper who gives people a hard time of it. But for us readers who didn’t have to live with her for her 80-odd years she is easily worth the trouble. 

While she avoids platitudes and has no place in her armoury for soft soap she does engender our trust that she is reliable in her sense of the truth of things.

Marion is also a strong character but it is her weaknesses and vulnerabilities that allow us into her world. The real heart of the book is Hortensia’s toughness as she curses God and studiously resists friendship. 

Even as they approach something resembling peace she nails Marion and her white guilt: “You want to talk to me and talk around what is true, circumnavigate whatever horror you prefer not to address. And I’m not here for that. I’ve got my own horrors.”

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