There’s something so irresistible about a story where old people behave badly. Maybe it’s because we all wish we had the right to say exactly what we feel without worrying about future consequences. “The Woman Next Door” focuses on two elderly neighbours Hortensia and Marion who live in a small upscale community in South Africa. Both are professionally successful independent women, but they don’t get along at all and don’t feel the need to pretend to get on. This leads to a lot of amusing confrontations and bitchy banter, especially at the neighbourhood meetings which are more glorified social occasions than gatherings to talk business. However, both these women are experiencing severe personal problems whose difficulties are amplified by their advanced age. On top of this claims are being made upon the land around them as compensation for the slaves of past generations who inhabited this area. They grudgingly become more reliant upon each other to navigate these difficulties, but that doesn’t mean either of them are willing to burry the hatchet.
Omotoso has a skilful way of describing the mindset of elderly life showing how it is not simply a time of accumulated regret but also a time where certain desires still burn just a brightly. Loss is something that both of the women have to deal with perpetually: “time was wicked and had fingers to take things.” Hortensia and Marion are very proud individuals. Their sense of dignity is lost when they are increasingly unable to take care of themselves because of physical or financial problems. To deal with this they have to improvise, strike bargains with each other and strategically manipulate those around them. All the while they churn over memories of their development and the choices they made in their lives which are recounted in passages throughout the novel.
I also really liked what a unique view of human relationships this novel gives. It lays out how (despite appearances) people can be quite selfish and superficial. Omotoso describes this quite well when recounting Marion’s feelings for some other neighbours called the Van Struikers: “Because she didn’t like them, Marion had made them her friends, attending all their soirees, noticed that behind the money their marriage was a sham and took comfort in this.” It’s cruelly honest how people can quite often take pleasure in the suffering of others not only to bolster their own egos but because it pulls the curtain back on the facades some people put up. This also plays out in how Marion deals with her long-serving housekeeper. In one scene it’s described how she discovers the housekeeper has been buying a better quality toilet paper than Marion herself buys. So she feels the need to buy better toilet paper for herself henceforth. This is not only a fine example of how someone can be ridiculously petty, but also the way in which Marion asserts her superiority as a member of the white upper class.
A continuous bone of contention between Hortensia and Marion is their racial difference. As a black woman of Caribbean descent who was raised in England and lived for some time in Nigeria, Hortensia is especially attuned to the hypocritical attitudes of certain white people that proclaim they aren’t racist, but their actions say something very different. Marion’s skewed sense of equality is inherited from her previous generation’s prejudices. It’s described how for Marion “there was no one to ask about what was real history and what was not. Her parents weren’t in the business of telling these two kinds of histories apart; they weren’t in the history business at all.” She didn’t have access to a rounded view of the past with its multiplicity of view points. So when she’s suddenly confronted with the truth of what actually took place on the land they inhabit she’s jolted into certain horrifying realizations.
This is a really enjoyable novel which balances a story about two warring neighbours with darker subjects of betrayal, complicated forms of racism and the perilous position of elderly people who have no support network. It’s unfortunate that not all the plot points (such as the petitions for land claims and the story of an illegitimate child) aren’t developed quite as fully as they could have been because the narrative is so weighted down by flashbacks to the women’s life stories. As interesting as these back stories are they pull the reader out of the drama happening in the present. It’s also a shame that we’re not given more about how these professionally successful women achieved the unusual status that they did. And no matter how much Omotoso tries to steer the story away from being a "two bitter old neighbours who are really frenemies" tale it seemed to be just that in the end. Nevertheless, it’s a refreshing and interesting novel featuring characters we seldom get to read about.