Imagine two women living in the upscale community of Katterijn in Cape Town, South Africa. Marion is the widowed mother of four and a former architect forced to leave her business when she started a family. Hortensia is originally from Barbados, and in the 1960s founded a very successful fabric design firm. Her husband is dying and they have no children. Hortensia is black and refers to Marion as “Marion the Vulture.” Marion is white and calls Hortensia “Hortensia the Horrible.” Both are now in their 80s and they have lived next door to each other for decades, nurturing a shared enmity that is well known throughout their community. Now imagine a series of unlikely events, entirely out of either woman's control, that forces these two into cohabitation. Wackiness is the last word for what ensues, but it certainly makes for compelling reading.
Barbadian born, and South African based, writer Yewande Omotoso makes a wonderful US debut with The Woman Next Door. Omotoso provides a fascinating look at life in South Africa, both during and post-apartheid. Even more wonderful is the balanced way she provides this look. Readers are made privy to the perspectives of both women. Marion didn’t agree with, but never openly challenged, the system that provided her privilege. This is in sharp contrast to Hortensia, who being married to a white man and relocated to South Africa because of his job, has been subjected to affronts, great and small, for her entire life. Watching these two stron-willed women tangle over the various mundanities of life is wickedly fun (and Omotoso could teach a thing or two to the writers of the BBC’s Vicious about sharp/barbed comments!). While greater understanding is reached on both sides, the novel never veers into the areas of the saccharine or maudlin. The Woman Next Door is both a great deal of fun and an insightful, eye-opening read.