By Freya Neason
Over the years the two women had argued about many things, each new encounter tense with enmity. In truth, they couldn’t have been more opposite. Hortensia, black and small bones, Marion, white, large. Marion’s husband dead, Hortensia’s not yet. Marion and her brood of four, Hortensia with no children. (p. 19)
The second book I read in my attempt to conquer the longlist of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017 was The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso. Set in modern-day South Africa, this novel charts the hate-filled relationship of two neighbours who are different in every possible way, including their skin colour. It is clear from the start of the novel that Hortensia and Marion are enemies, but as the story develops a freak accident brings them closer together, with drastic consequences for their relationship. As both women are in their eighties they have a whole lifetime behind them, and recollections of their past are intertwined with a commentary of their present in order to provide a greater understanding of the way in which such relationships are formed and altered.
Omotoso approaches the theme of age throughout this novel with great skill, despite only being in her thirties herself: issues of aging, death, and relationships are dealt with in a refreshingly honest way. Furthermore, these characters disprove existing stereotypes of the elderly, most clearly that ‘those of a certain age’ are irreversibly set in their ways. The development of Hortensia and Marion’s relationship demonstrates that even beliefs rooted in apartheid times can be questioned; old age is not a sufficient justification for racism. These determined women override the generalisation that old ladies are senile, feeble and easy to ignore.
Entangled with the theme of age is that of race, and the prejudices that survive in South Africa today. Instead of producing a survey of the current racial climate in South Africa, this novel offers a close examination of one specific scenario that is highly nuanced in terms of class, age and gender. Some subtle nods are made to the persistence of racism across the country but on the whole this theme is portrayed only through the personal experiences of the two main characters. Hortensia makes flippant, matter-of-fact comments, whilst Marion provides a more emotional and hard-hitting account of the horrors of racial prejudice. Although this approach succeeds in demonstrating how experiences of racism can vary greatly throughout a community, at times its analysis seems shallow.
For the most part The Woman Next Door successfully deals with the themes mentioned above; however, this novel was not what I had hoped it would be. Following the announcement of the shortlist at the beginning of this month, I was not surprised that Omotoso’s book did not make the cut for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the storyline can be predicted from reading the blurb alone and I was left with little incentive to read until the end of the novel. Furthermore, the writing style was not to my taste and the frequent changes in tense alongside an absence of pronouns made it difficult to follow. In addition, whilst they are occasionally entertaining, both Hortensia and Marion’s constant grumbles and criticisms quickly became cumbersome; unimaginative jibes such as ‘Hortensia the Horrible’ are fundamentally tedious. Unfortunately the existence of this hatred, rather than its dissolution, dominated the book. If the weighting of these two aspects of the plot were to be inverted, a deeper exploration of the complexities of their budding friendship would have been possible; for me, this was the aspect of the novel that had the most potential.
Image: Faye Chua, Penguin Books