The Woman Next Door: Race & change in South Africa

The Woman Next Door Book Review

What is this about: This is about Hortensia and Marion, two women very much set in their ways, who find themselves neighbours and who argue about everything.

What else is this about?: A character exploration of two women who grew up in apartheid and racism in South Africa and London. 

Stars: 4.5/5 

Blurb: Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbours. One is black, one white. Both are successful women with impressive careers. Both have recently been widowed. And both are sworn enemies, sharing hedge and hostility which they prune with a zeal that belies the fact that they are both over eighty.

But one day an unforeseen event forces the women together. And gradually the bickering and sniping softens into lively debate, and from there into memories shared. But could these sparks of connection ever transform into friendship? Or is it too late to expect these two to change?

The Woman Next Door is a thoughtful exploration of what it means to be in a changing South Africa I think. Hortensia is a transplant from London by way of Nigeria and Marion has lived in South Africa her whole life. They’re set in their ways, in the casual racism that permeates everything they do (Marion) and Hortensia, who is broken and has learned hate, or maybe apathy, is better than caring. As the two women find themselves thrown together in a situation that is actually kind of funny, the book explores who they were before they were each other’s enemy, putting the present into perspective.

Hortensia

Is a strong, ambitious woman who started an illustrious design house, through her moves from London to Nigeria and then to South Africa. The book explores her marriage to Peter, a white man, and how it changed her to find out he was having an affair, which in turn fed into her insecurities at being unable to bear children.

As much as she says otherwise, this broke her heart so that when the book opens, we see a woman who delights in being abrasive and brutally honest, emphasis on the brutally. She sees it as her mission to keep the other old women in line in the community in which she lives and she delights in it. Her husband dies soon after the book opens and she takes it as a sign to change things, in the house and around her, which is when she promptly breaks her leg and finds herself in need of Marion’s help.

Marion

Is an old white woman who still buys 1-ply toilet roll for her maid, and loses it when she finds it being kept in the pantry with “her things”. She is a perfectly nice woman, if it wasn’t for the fact that she can’t let go of the past, of apartheid and the culture in which she’s lived her whole life. Her children tolerate her, and her husband lost all their money, so that when the book opens she needs Hortensia’s help to hide a painting she thinks will solve all her money problems. Except you know, she loses track of it.

Marion is that woman – the one who says she’s too old to change her ways, and who likes everything the way she likes it – how she grew up and is used to it. She treats Agnes, her maid, with a classy thoughtlessness that has no malice to it, she just genuinely doesn’t know how to treat her differently.

But Hortensia calls on her on bullshit, so it makes for interesting reading to see these two women, set in their ways and hating each other living together because of circumstances beyond their control.

Hortensia and Marion

Pacing does suffer in the flashbacks, I have to admit, but it’s something you can gloss over once you learn of the events that shaped these women – and me? I found myself feeling sorry for them – they are a product of their circumstances, who never before had the opportunity to change. They never went looking for it either, I have to admit. They were comfortable in their hurt and their lives where they knew what made sense and how the world worked, so change was easy to ignore.

This doesn’t de-evolve into something saccharine sweet, that these women grow to understand each other better and still bite each other’s heads off is a testament to Yewande Omotoso’s writing and her steady guidance for these women to remain true to themselves, while realising they were changing.

That’s what strikes me about this – change is hard. When you’ve lived in a world for 30 years or so – whether it’s apartheid or knowing your husband had an affair – it’s comfortable there. You’ll know how it works even if you hate every minute f it until apartheid ends and you find your grandchildren looking at you sideways for how you treat your maid, and you find yourself considering your husband’s betrayal entirely differently.

Change happens, even if you’re kicking and screaming while it does. These strong women take it head on, arguing the entire way, but showing a country like South Africa it is still possible.

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