Two women, diametrically opposed yet disturbingly alike, squabble and feud over turf and power in an elite community in South Africa.
“Their rivalry was infamous enough for the other committee women to hang back and watch the show. It was known that the two women shared a hedge and hatred and they pruned both with a vim that belied their ages.”
Marion is a racist white woman still unused to the changes her country has been through in recent years; Hortensia is a black woman who immigrated to South Africa with her white husband but who, nonetheless, enjoys provoking distress and asking the uncomfortable questions.
“Hortensia put a smile on her face. She’d learned, especially in Cape Town, that a smiling black woman was a dangerous weapon in its apparent innocuousness. It was what she thought of as a decoy, something to distract people with, while she worked out where their weak points were.”
Both are elderly women with strong voices and successful careers in male-dominated fields. Both are widowed by men who were distant, deceptive, and destructive. Both are foul-tempered misanthropes left virtually friendless in their old age. Eventually, their sparking feud burns too many bridges and they find themselves in need of one another, uncomfortably yet inevitably aligned.
“The Woman Next Door” employs a classic motif: personalities set forth as foils and foes become formidable allies. Time and again, narratives are built on this fundamental premise, but perhaps there is a reason the theme persists. We are fascinated with people’s deeper selves, with the idea that more unites us than divides us. We are also drawn to the question of whether or not people can truly change.
Whether or not one finds the trope Omotoso invoked a bit predictable or even cliched, her characters and her witticisms are wry and fresh. Hortensia and Marion are the ‘odd couple’, they are ‘grumpy old men’; but they are uncompromising, strong-minded, successful women with delightful barbs and bon mots. In short shrift, Yewande Omotoso is able to bring humor and levity to discussions of sexism, racism, and classism, all while creating a story that flows with ease and characters who are despicably charming.
Thank you to Picador for providing an Advanced Review Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. “The Woman Next Door” will be published by Picador in the US on February 7, 2017.