Yewande Omotoso’s latest novel is about two neighbours, both difficult women, both avowed enemies. We see them in action early on in the novel, as they are members of a local group, the grandly named Katterjin Committee. Typically, their reasons for joining are diametrically opposed, Hortensia enjoys mocking the organisation and feeling superior, Marion believes it’s an important bastion against corruption and lowering standards. When the sniping begins, ‘their rivalry was infamous enough for the other committee women to hang back and watch the show. It was known that the two women shared hedge and hatred and they pruned both with a vim that belied their ages.’
Appropriately, the arguments at this committee meeting are about land. First, a legal claim made under the Restitution of Land Rights Act passed by Mandela’s government. The second item is a request to bury a grandmother’s ashes at the graves of her dead children and husband, graves which lie in land the family lost as a result of the racist 1913 Native Land Act. In simple terms, one decision is about money and the other about sentiment, though both are inextricably linked to issues of race and injustice.
What makes ‘The Woman Next Door’ such a wonderful read is the way Omotoso weaves her narrative of modern femininity around these themes. Both heroines are highly successful business women, who have fought hard for recognition in a white, male world. Both are failures as mothers, Hortensia is childless, Marion may as well be. Both are also abrasive bullies who take any encroachment on their self-declared rights extremely personally. Marion, white and racist is less sympathetic than her assertive black neighbour, but Hortensia can give as good as she gets, and her treatment of nurses is scarcely more palatable than Marion’s attitude to her maid.
Sentiment and land ownership unexpectedly bring the two women together. Each is sent a destructive message from her dead husband (Hortensia’s is about family, Marion’s about money). Then, their independence is further threatened, as Marion temporarily loses her house and Hortensia her freedom of movement. Balancing the powerful exploration of ageing and vulnerability, the way these indomitable women fight for their continued ability to dominate everyone they encounter is laugh out loud funny, an unadulterated joy to read.
The reason a book about loneliness and racism can be so comic is the complexity and authenticity of the main characters. Marion, for example, is a masterful creation, a modern-day Babbitt, revealing the desperate insecurity, emptiness and misery that lie below her determinedly reactionary life-view. When her young children questioned apartheid, she was fighting a losing battle ‘No, it wasn’t unfair. It was in fact very fair. Life was fair. // Life may have been fair but it was getting out of control. Slowly more and more of Marion’s energy was taken up in keeping her life in line.’ Undermined and isolated, Marion barely belonged in South Africa then, now her position is even more precarious.
The novel does not condone the attitudes or behaviour of its leading ladies, but it does revel in their comedic potential. Read it, love it and then join me in hoping for a sequel, I’m not ready to leave Hortensia and Marion yet – who knows what else they will learn from each other, and how much more misery they can cause those around them?
I received my copy of ‘The Woman Next Door’ from Random House UK via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.