The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso
Published by Chatto & Windus
This is, on the surface, a simple story about a feud between two neighbors in South Africa and the surrounding details of what the drama between the two women is all about. But this is post-Apartheid South Africa, and since Hortensia is black and Marion is white, their feud comes with all kinds of deep-seated issues of race, class, and background. When one of the women suffers an accident that brings the two of them in close quarters for an extended period of time, they are forced to confront each other as well as their own prejudices as they attempt to forge what can only be described as a tenuous acquaintanceship.
I love reading books set in different cultures and continue to remind myself of the importance of doing so. The Woman Next Door was the perfect example of such a novel, as I have to say that I’m more ignorant about the details of Apartheid than I’d like to be (and plan to remedy that with future books, probably more non-fiction about the topic). The book was a good intro to how the culture has attempted to evolve into a more tolerant and accepting society since the end of Apartheid, but it is clear that the degree to which that has actually happened is minimal at best.
This book is full of little references to the culture in this part of South Africa, the long-lasting effects of Apartheid, and the ways in which living through that shaped how these women think and behave. There are several scenes where Marion begins to have light bulb moments about her part in keeping blacks and whites separate and the fact that she is racist and never realized it until her conversations with Hortensia. There are other moments where Hortensia outright confronts Marion about her racism and doesn’t make it easy for her – she forces her to examine her prejudices head-on and not run or hide from them.
Even with the honesty that Hortensia and Marion face within themselves, I still didn’t think the book went as far as I would have liked to address the racism and prejudices inherent in these women’s lives. Put simply, I liked the concept but wanted more. I wanted even harsher criticisms of Marion’s behavior and I wanted even more intense confrontations between the two women. In addition, I didn’t feel particularly connected to either woman, and I just wanted to feel something more for them. In the end, while I appreciate what Omotoso was doing in this novel, and the writing was great, overall the book didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I liked it but didn’t love it. Again, though, the book exposed me to a culture that I wish I knew more about and looked at some history that I also want to learn more about. So in that sense, it was a total win. I just wish I would have gotten more feeling, more connection, from the characters.