Their rivalry was infamous enough for the other committee women to hang back and watch the show. It was known that the two women shared a hedge and hatred and they pruned both with a vim that belied their ages.
Hortensia James and Marion Agostino live in Katterijn, in the suburb of Constantia, Cape Town. Hortensia is the only black person living there. Her (white) husband, Peter, is dying. Their marriage long since descended into tolerance, Hortensia goes out walking, allowing her space to catch her breath and him the opportunity to take his last.
Marion lives next door. Both women are in their eighties and intolerant of each other.
‘So you see, Hortensia, this is not about your favourite topic, the race card. For once we’re on the same side.’ Marion’s smile looked set to burst and set the world alight.
‘Not so, Marion. We are not on the same side. You should know this by now. Whatever you say, I disagree with. However you feel, I feel the opposite. At no point in anything are you and I on the same side. I don’t side with hypocrites.’
Both women have problems they’re going to have to deal with: Marion’s husband spent all their money before he died. The debt collectors are close to taking their share but Marion has a painting she hasn’t declared and she needs somewhere to hide it. Would next door be the perfect place?
When Hortensia’s husband dies, a secret he’s been hiding for decades is revealed and Hortensia has to decide how she’s going to deal with it, what sort of person she wants to be.
Alongside both of these personal issues, the Katterijn committee discovers a land claim from a family called the Samsodiens, disenfranchised when the land Katterijn was eventually built on was given to a Dutch man, Von Struiker, who put a vineyard upon it. The claim puts their properties in jeopardy. The committee also receives a letter from a woman whose mother was a slave woman on the farm which stood where Hortensia’s house is now. She says the Silver Tree in Hortensia’s garden is where this woman’s children were buried and she wishes to be buried with them.
Omotoso takes the women’s stories both forwards and backwards; as events play out on the street, she fills in their backstories, showing the reader how they became the difficult, stubborn old women to whom we’ve been introduced. They have more in common than they’d like to believe, both successful in their own right before marriage and children or, in Hortensia’s case, the lack of them. Hortensia runs a highly successful haberdashery firm; Marion was an architect, ‘top of her class, a position she wrestled from a male student who not only found her presence in the school annoying, but her ambition and fierce competitiveness vulgar’.
This is where Marion’s real issues with Hortensia are revealed. Firstly, Marion’s racist; happy enough to hire a black maid but not to allow their children to play together or for any of them to use the same toilet. Secondly, the house Hortensia lives in was Marion’s first commission, the house she designed to her own spec, the house she put her heart into:
A house is a person, she’d argued, to the sound of guffaws from the rest of the class. But she’d pressed on and turned in her essay. What was house design if it wasn’t the study of armour, of disguises, of appearances? The most intimate form of space-making, the closest architects might ever come to portraiture.
By living in No. 10, Hortensia has pierced Marion’s armour, taken residency under her skin.
Omotoso looks at the trials life delivers these two women and how they shape the people they’ve become. Marriage, children, work, money, apartheid all play a part. For a book with a number of heavy themes, it’s very funny in parts; the two women play off each other, Omotoso making it clear at times that these women enjoy winding each other up, it’s something to do in their old age.
My only criticism of The Woman Next Door is that we’re given a little too much backstory. I would’ve preferred a little room to make my own connections between events, draw my own conclusions as to the effect events in the past had on the main characters. However, that doesn’t prevent the book from being an engaging read.
What particularly impressed me about The Woman Next Door was that it was about two elderly women – how often are they allowed to take centre stage? – who had forged big successful careers – one in a male dominated environment, who were allowed to be snarky and unpleasant. It’s everything we’re told the book industry won’t publish. Hurrah to Yewande Omotoso for writing it and to Chatto & Windus for publishing it. More, please.
Thanks to Chatto & Windus for the review copy.