Fictional story highlights the reality of race relations in post-apartheid South Africa

By: Chloë Williams, Columnist

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own. 

“The Woman Next Door” by Yewande Omotoso is the story of two elderly women, one white, one black, living in post-apartheid South Africa. It is a fictional story, but one that focuses on some very real truths about human and racial experience.

Hortensia is a strong-willed woman unafraid to speak her truth. However, her unabashed nature has been the result of enduring years of endless micro-aggressions, and being forced to fade into the background in order to protect herself. Although she doesn’t hide in her shell anymore, Hortensia still recognizes herself as being a bitter person. 

Then there’s Marion, who stands for everything Hortensia hates. Marion is a woman of the same age as Hortensia, but she grew up in a rich, white household without having to face the effects of apartheid. Safe inside her bubble, she grew up learning racist ideologies, and doesn’t understand Hortensia’s more negative outlook on life. The pair may be sworn enemies, but the novel throws them together when an unfortunate circumstance leads to them sharing the same household.

This novel plays well with space and pattern. Both of these women are elderly, widowed, and lonely. However, it is likely they would prefer being alone to being in each other’s company. Naturally, Hortensia and Marion clash quite often, touching nerves about their marriages, as well as experiences with children and race. This causes offense when it arises, but it also forces each of them to examine themselves more closely and remember unsavory moments from their pasts. 

Another aspect of this novel that is incredibly successful is the exploration of beautification. Marion is an architect and Hortensia is a fashion designer. Both rose from criticism, and both have careers focused on enhancing the world around them. 

What I believe to be unsuccessful about the novel is its tendency to create unnatural situations for its characters. Much of the plot forwarding feels quite “deus ex machina.” The concept in itself is believable- two neighbors are sworn enemies who end up unlikely friends. However, each interaction they have seems to resolve in a big revelation, becoming more and more unbelievable the more they stack up. 

This novel feels like a story, rather than a deep look into the lives of two realistic women, which seems to be the aim. The characters often feel distant from the reader, and hard to interpret. This is particularly noticeable when Hortensia scares off, quite literally, every nurse in the hospital. It is also evident when Hortensia’s husband forces her to meet his illegitimate child after his death. Individually, these odd moments could work, but with so many out-of-the-ordinary events, the novel begins to feel a bit forced.

Overall, “The Woman Next Door” provides a carefully balanced insight into the minds of two very different women. It also does an exemplary job examining the differences in a post-apartheid South Africa for white people versus people of color. Hortensia and Marion’s inner dialogue pose a lot of great questions for the reader about the ethics of forgiveness, the responsibility of knowledge, and the justifications for bitterness. This is a thought-provoking piece of literature that definitely deserves its place on your bookshelf.


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