THE WOMAN NEXT DOOR

Yewande Omotoso’s latest novel, The Woman Next Door, intertwines two thematic constants—one strand considers the process of aging, while the other ponders issues of racial misunderstandings. Her two protagonists, Hortensia James and Marion Agostino, have lived next door to each other in an exclusive South African enclave for more than twenty years. Or perhaps I should say her two antagonists, for the two elderly women endure utter distaste for one another. If anything, each thrives on the animosity she feels.

Hortensia, a black woman from Barbados, educated in London, a highly successful fabric designer, wealthy in her own right and long married to a well-to-do white man, childless, has always been the only black person living in Katterijn. Most of the families there employ people of color as their gardeners, maids, and cooks, but hold themselves aloof from much personal interaction. The residents’ relationship with Hortensia is complicated. They respect her wealth, tolerate her peculiarities, and keep their distance as much as possible.

Hortensia’s neighbor Marion controls much of Katterijn’s social strata. She heads the “committee,” a gathering of women who dictate what is proper. All the owners’ wives attend these meetings, even Hortensia who delights in upsetting the proceedings. But it is Marion who orchestrates any rules or decisions that need to be made. Marion, too, has had a successful career as an architect, although she put her profession on hold in order to raise her four children. Her first design, which won structural accolades and jump-started her artistic reputation, is the house next door, No.10, where the hated Hortensia has lived for two decades.

Normally the two women ignore each other. Widowed when The Woman Next Door begins, Marion watches her neighbor from afar and even spies on her occasionally. But the two rarely speak. When Hortensia’s husband dies after a long, drawn-out illness, Marion offers condolences that Hortensia correctly interprets as meddlesome and nosy. Then, slowly, with many fits and fumbles, their two lives converge. Omotoso manages this disconnection/connection with sensitivity and finesse. Not once are the dialogue and the deeds forced. Rather, the two eighty-plus-year-olds constantly display their personal foibles and flaws.

The Woman Next Door becomes an extended meditation on marriage, as each woman comes to terms with the hollowness of her wedded life. It also becomes a reflection on the aging process—the unexpected infirmities, the loss of spouses and friends, the anticipation of death. Finally, the novel becomes a deliberation about ethnicity, about one’s heritage and one’s cultural prejudices. All this is done with a subtle thoughtfulness that encourages the reader to think beyond the book’s boundaries, and with a tact that never sounds trite.

Omotoso’s metaphoric imagination brings a freshness to every page. Hortensia and Marion, forced together, drink “bad tea as if it were gin, their teeth barred, the muscles in their necks tensed.” For Hortensia, “the loss of her walk was the first sign that time was wicked and had fingers to take things.” For both of these women, “marriage was like ordering in a foreign-language restaurant. Thinking it’s fish, too embarrassed and proud to confirm in English. And then your heart drops when the waiter puts a plate of something bleeding and unrecognizable in front of you. Something you are absolutely certain you are not going to be able to eat, no matter how hard you try.”

Omotoso’s metaphoric imagination brings a freshness to every page. Hortensia and Marion, forced together, drink “bad tea as if it were gin, their teeth barred, the muscles in their necks tensed.” For Hortensia, “the loss of her walk was the first sign that time was wicked and had fingers to take things.” For both of these women, “marriage was like ordering in a foreign-language restaurant. Thinking it’s fish, too embarrassed and proud to confirm in English. And then your heart drops when the waiter puts a plate of something bleeding and unrecognizable in front of you. Something you are absolutely certain you are not going to be able to eat, no matter how hard you try.”

Effortlessly, Omotoso captures two elderly souls coming to terms with their mortality, with their past sins, and with the blindness of racial intolerance. Most definitely, The Woman Next Door is a novel worth reading. – Ann Ronald

Also available by Yewande Omotoso: Bom Boy

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