I really enjoyed The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso. It was a book I selected from one of the display tables at the library. The summer reading program theme was Community and this book also fit my goal to read more writers of color.
There are two main characters in the story who live next door to each other in a predominately white neighborhood in a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa. One is black and one is white. There is a lot of animosity between them and little patience for the other’s point of view.
Life circumstances intervene and by the third act, the women are living together. A transparent plot device that did not come across as realistic. It’s my only big negative about the book, but it is negated by the fact that I really like where the story went from there. Both women go through significant life changes over the course of the book. I can’t imagine the story without the intimacy forced on them by living together.
Marion could be any white woman. I found her character disposable. Her value came in recognizing parts of myself in her. She was a typical housewife, meddling in neighborhood business, and intent on keeping things the way they have always been.
Hortensia is the lifeblood of the novel. Her approach to life is a critical mirror. She doesn’t ignore. She confronts. She highlights. She states the unspoken. It is jarring. It disorients Marion and drives the conflict between them. Hortensia has no patience for Marion’s color blindness. Her behavior and motives are not driven by a need to make things easy for Marion. She is driven by a need to confront reality head first. She enjoys alienating people with her directness. Her goal is solitude from people and from pain.
I go back and forth about Hortensia. She is a unique character who is direct about her desire to be left alone. She doesn’t feel the need to educate Marion on the nuances of race and class. Marion should just figure it out. By the end of the book, Marion does begin to question what she was raised to believe and see the world through more than just the lens of her own reality. Hortensia is a significant reason why she does that. This is where I am conflicted about Hortensia.
The women do not become BFF’s. They do develop a mutual respect for one another. They get one another. Hortensia has opened herself up and isn’t so set on isolating herself by the end of the novel. I just wish it had come by other means. I felt this novel was written for white readers.
I identified a lot with Marion’s journey and opening her eyes to the realities of the impact of historical race and class struggles on current day behaviors. There is a land dispute in the novel that sets up her looking back on what she raised to believe. I’ve gone through a similar awakening from my white rural American education. Perhaps that is why I felt like the book was written for people like me and Marion and less for people like Hortensia. I’m disappointed and I want Hortensia to have her own story. Marion held her back.