“‘Race this, race that! Everything race–“when you say ‘these people'”…Cow!'” (19)
So complains Marion Agostino about her neighbor Hortensia James in Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door. To read the novel’s back cover, which situates the action in a “charming, bouganvillea-laden Cape Town suburb” where one antagonist “is black, one white…Both are in their eighties. And both are sworn enemies, sharing hedge and hostility pruned with zeal,” a potential reader could be forgiven for portraying a distinctly South African portrayal of race relations.
But Omotoso throws us a curve ball, or more precisely, a swinging construction crane, which injures Hortensia, damages Marion’s house, and puts them both under the same roof (temporarily, of course). Neither Hortensia nor Marion are native South Africans–Hortensia from Barbados by way of London and Nigeria, Marion a Lithuanian Jew who fled persecution as a child. Their perspectives and identities, while certainly shaped by the legacies of apartheid and their aftermaths, expand our understandings of what it means to be black or white, or a woman, in South Africa. Hortensia and Marion’s disagreements center around personality, place, and profession. Hortensia, a fashion designer, lives in the first house Marion, an architect, ever designed, and they take every possible opportunity to insult each other:
“I’m sure, if pushed, these people would be hard pressed to substantiate [claims to land ownership]. People looking for easy money, if you ask me.”
“When you say ‘these people’ what you really mean is black people, am I right?”
“You most certainly are not, and I would–“
“Marion, I’m not in the mood for your bigotry today. I distinctly remember asking you to keep your racist conversations for your dinner table.” (14)
Add to this the fact that both women are in their eighties, weathered and world-weary in a way that rejects the need for adaption or apology. In fact, I struggled throughout the novel to imagine the women as elderly as they were, constantly forcing myself to visualize grandma-esque characters spouting such pithy, perky, and perspicuous lines. To be fair, neither of them are exceptionally matronly–Hortensia is childless while Marion is estranged from three of her four, who she resented as barriers to her professional career.
When the construction incident brings the two together under Hortensia’s roof, their differences–racial and otherwise–must be worked through with the kind of brutal honesty, unapologetic insult, and self-inflicting pain of old women who don’t give a damn.
I don’t hate you, Marion, I just think you’re a liar. And I can’t get involved. I don’t care enough and anyway I think it’s too late. I don’t want kinship with you. I don’t hate or like you. I don’t really consider you….And we don’t have to get in a car and drive off a cliff or anything. You stay here. We keep out of each other’s way….I think, at this far-gone stage, that’s about as much as people like you and I can muster. (216)
Despite the women’s shared icyness, forced proximity breeds a grudgingly intimacy through mutual needs and boredom, a shared crush on a much-younger doctor, personal revelations, and a moment of physical assault.
“Apartheid happened, you see? Hortensia?…All those things happened and I didn’t do anything about them….You say I’m a hypocrite. I have to be. I have to pretend it happened somewhere else; that I read it in a book. I would not be able to get out of bed otherwise.” (231-232)
It should not go unnoticed that, on the topic of race, Marion does the necessary and hard work of bringing up her own ignorance, complicity, prejudice, and pride without expecting Hortensia to lead by example, supply the correct vocabulary, or hold her hand. Clearly, Hortensia will do none of these things.
Critics of the novel complain that that it is too surface-level, that the innovations in wit and witticism pass over deeper topics, and that the novel glances by what was set up to be its biggest conflict: a request by the family of former slaves to bury their grandmother’s ashes on Hortensia’s property. It is true that the conversations about race and offers of reconciliation are almost completely one-sided: Hortensia’s account of spying on her white husband with his white lover in her own house, Marion’s admittance of separate dishes and toilet paper for her black maid. But the truth of the matter is that the hurt, shame, guilt, and imperfection of talking about race are difficult to talk about. Emotions need space. Excavation and healing take time. Admittances, apologies, and the responses to them are not always forthcoming. Sometimes there are silences, miscommunication, clarification, and seemingly surface-level interactions thick with subtext. After all these confessions, avoidances, stuttering starts and stops and singed eyebrows, it isn’t a mistake that one of the novel’s final scenes has the characters finishing each other’s sentences:
“I…uhm, I’m not sure what I wanted to say, now. It seemed right in my head. I guess I just…What I thought was…”
Hortensia shifted her weight. “Yes Marion. I agree completely.”
“No, but I really, I’m being serious now, I wanted to…try, and–“
“Yes, yes. I feel the same.” (272)
Not pretty, not young, not perfect, The Woman Next Door shows us what it might look like to build friendships across fences.