The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso
Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbors, but they are definitely not neighborly. There is much to separate them. Hortensia is the only black owner in a South African estate just outside Cape Town. She works in textiles and creates soft, decorative fabrics; Marion is an architect who looks down on the other profession. One is financially secure while the other is all-too-quickly sinking into penury. Each has a secret that separates them from one another and from their other neighbors as surely as a hedge separates these two women’s homes.
Yet, there is much to share in their lives. Each is a widow who at one point in their past had been highly successful in their professional life. Both are now in their 80s and possess a powerful sense of self-importance and confidence in their ability to succeed. Each believes she is secure in who she is.
Calamitous events bring them grudgingly together: Hortensia breaks her leg and Marion’s home must be repaired, so she invites Marion to move in with her. Omotoso unfolds the histories of each woman in a gripping recitation of professional successes and personal failures that reveal how each woman came to this moment in life. Their stories are compelling; The Woman Next Door is elegantly written with fresh metaphors and descriptions that reflect its unique setting.
Hortensia and Marion collide out of necessity, and their thaw is slow and not entirely certain. Will their common experiences drive them together or further apart, or create a nervous détente? How will their secrets affect their relationship? At one point Marion asks Hortensia why she invited her into her home. Hortensia replies, “I was desperate…and possibly mistaken.” Their searches for love and belonging are fraught with difficulties, often of their own making. As the central core of their lives is unveiled, they push back at the wall that separates them even as they come to depend on one another.
Omotoso creates a vivid picture of modern life in a South Africa that is still creeping out of Apartheid. Even today, and this is reflected in this brilliantly realized novel, housing estates (we’d call them planned developments) still echo the separation of races. Omotoso captures the insidious efforts of those who still believe themselves to be the dominant elite to clutch their status and place in society.
Yewande Omotoso is a writer and architect in Johannesburg. Born in Barbados and raised in Nigeria, her family moved to South Africa in 1992. Her first novel, Bom Boy, was published in 2011 and immediately garnered critical acclaim in her adopted country. The Woman Next Door is sure to bring attention to her on a wider scale.