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May 29, 2016 | by  | in Books |
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The Woman Next Door

★★★

Author: Yewande Omotoso

Publisher: Chatto & Windus

 

There is something precious, but disconcerting, about being placed in the head of an eighty-year-old woman as she goes about her life. There are two elderly women facing off in this restrained South African story: Hortensia, a black designer, recently widowed, versus Marion, a white architect, with awful adult children.

Both have a lot of unresolved issues, just like celebrity child actors. While the issues seem hot-button at face value—white guilt, an illegitimate lovechild, a stolen painting, an accidentally demolished house forcing two individuals who hate each other under the same roof—it is all written gently, slowly, poetically, so as to heighten the realism but undercut the potential thrills.

I spent some time imagining the brilliant film that could come out of a story like this. It would be beautifully lit, with a charming orchestral soundtrack and artsy camera angles. You’ll would cry at the end when everyone learns to love each other, but you would also smile because they’re both still so curmudgeonly, and that’s totally what your family is like too. Someone would win a BAFTA—probably the greying yet handsome Dr Mama (the strong, comforting doctor that cares for Hortensia when she is injured halfway through the narrative), played by a well-dressed Denzel Washington with a British accent instead of a South African one, because those are really hard.

I think the point of Omotoso’s work is to capture the pathos of looking back over your own life and wondering, what does it all add up to in the end? Hortensia relives her barely-breathing marriage and is furious when she discovers her husband had a daughter with another woman; that daughter comes to embody Hortensia’s own regret. Marion refuses to look back, afraid and ashamed of her racist past, until she is forced by circumstance. Yet, together, these women begin to find peace.

Read this novel if you’re nearing the southerly end of life and will relate to the accompanying frustrations and joys, or if you want a more fully realised understanding of the small, dangerous effects of a nation still wriggling in the shadow of apartheid, or if wacky domestic dramas are your jam.

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