The Woman Next Door concerns two elderly women, neighbors and antagonists for the past twenty years or so, since shortly after the abolition of Apartheid, in an upscale suburb of Cape Town. One is black, the other white. Circumstance forces them to turn to each other for help.
I picked this book up in Cape Town last fall, wanting to buy at least a few books by South African authors I hadn’t heard of. I thought I knew where this story was headed. Old white South African woman is racist. Old black South African woman next door shares her wisdom and teaches her neighbor the error of her ways, and they live happily ever after. Light and witty but ultimately inconsequential. A lesser author may have done exactly that, but Yewande Omotoso had other ideas, and I am glad she did.
First of all, each character both is and isn’t what I expected. Yes, the white woman is racist. Yes, the black woman badgers her for it. But they’re both far more complicated than those obvious tropes, and that’s where Omotoso earns my highest respect. I hesitate to say too much about these characters, as a big part of my enjoyment came from the ways Omotoso subverted stereotype and expectation.
Omotoso respects her readers enough not to dwell too much on the large-scale historical events and societal issues, somehow saying very little directly yet making sure the undercurrent is always there. Instead, she focuses on how individuals fit into the larger context while still being shaped as much or more by their own personal histories and circumstances. The characters only begin to thaw when they confront their own personal failings, but as in life, there are no easy answers.
When I finished this book last week, I knew I had really enjoyed it but thought that it wouldn’t stick with me. Boy, was I wrong! As I write this review, I’ve found myself digging back through the text to find quotes that have stuck with me. I’ll close with one of my favorites:
“Hortensia came to the realisation that the quality of her life would have benefited greatly from more anger and less resentment. Resentment was different from anger. Anger was like a dragon, burning other things. Resentment burned a hole in your stomach, burned your insides.”