In brief: Hortensia and Marion are elderly neighbours but deadly enemies, arguing over the smallest detail. But when a freak accident damages them both, they are forced to actually talk…what will happen?
The good: Liked reading about older main characters.
The not-so-good: Sometimes a bit too much going on with the backstory and present day problems.
Why I chose it: On this year’s Bailey’s Prize longlist.
Publisher: Chatto & Windus (Penguin)
Setting: South Africa
My rating: 8.5 out of 10
The Woman Next Door initially seems like a quirky book, about the spats between two elderly ladies and reminisces of their youth. But on reading it, it’s so much deeper than that. It looks at post-apartheid South Africa, racism, infidelity, ambition, power and family. The women are almost secondary to the themes, but not quite for they are strong, stubborn characters with a hard backbone!
The story flicks back and forth between neighbours Hortensia and Marion, who live in what appears to be a well off residential community in South Africa. They’ve been neighbours for years, but never friends. Is it because Hortensia is black or something else? Both take delight in trying to gain a reaction from the other in any, petty or not, circumstance. When a freak accident turns both their lives upside down, it turns out that the pair need each other to survive old age. Could that lead to friendship?
Both Marion and Hortensia are fascinating, if not overly likeable characters. Hortensia is strongly aware of race, having married a white man and fending off comments about that all her life. She’s also a successful professional. Hence, she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. The one thing missing from her life was a baby, but it didn’t happen. Marion is racist, but won’t willingly admit it. It’s in the little things, like separate crockery for her maid and buying thinner toilet paper. She’s also been successful as an architect (designing Hortensia’s house and coveting it ever since) but reluctantly gave it away to be a mother. She’s never felt that motherhood came naturally or easily and resents the loss of her career. Micromanaging the local community group is the closest she can get to power.
Where Hortensia and Marion come together is their dislike of old age, but even more, their loss of power and the ability to be needed. Both widows, nobody seems to need them in their lives – not Marion’s children, not their work, not their maids. In fact, it’s them who are being needy to others through illness and misfortune. Neither woman can handle this. Through ups and downs in the plot they get some (but not all) redemption.
The Woman Next Door is a clever, multi-layered book. There is much to discuss in terms of themes. Occasionally the present day sniping between Marion and Hortensia did get dull and I preferred to read their backstories. Some of the events at the end did seem a little strange and out of place with the rest of the novel. Overall, it’s a strong story that took my out of my comfort zone.