Review: 'The Woman Next Door' by Yewande Omotoso

In the run-up to the winner of the 2017 Baileys Prize being announced on June 7th, Becky Lea reads her way through the longlist and offers her thoughts.

Baileys Womens Prize 2017 The Woman Next Door

Hortensia lives in a charming, designer house in a wealthy suburb of Cape Town, her ailing husband bedridden as she wanders off on walks on a mission to escape. Her next door neighbour is Marion, a retired architect who has now become the head honcho at the community’s housing committee. Hortensia’s stubborn refusal to engage with it clashes with Marion’s hands-on attitude, but circumstances soon force the women into an uneasy alliance that threatens their status as mutual enemies.

In Hortensia and Marion, Yewande Omotoso has created two memorable and recognisable characters and their adversarial sparring is a well-drawn clash of personalities. Hortensia, in particular, arrives fully formed; cantankerous but sympathetic at all times. Marion begins the novel a little less clear, but Omotoso uses her backstory well to tease out the character more as the narrative progresses.

The highlight of Omotoso’s novel is the relationship that these women have, the development of which is the thru-line of the narrative. It’s bitter and adversarial, with the kind of put-downs you’d expect from two women old enough and wise enough to have seen it all and dealt with more several times over. Even as it becomes a begrudging mutual existence, there’s a caustic wit that fires through their interactions.

As a tale of disgruntled suburbia, The Woman Next Door works particularly well, the trials and tribulations filtered through race, privilege, and tradition. Omotoso keeps the tone light for the most part. Only really darkening for the moments of introspection that both women find themselves going through the more unsettling undercurrent to their lives.

The landscape of the 20th century and the way in which gender and racial politics have influenced their lives are never far away without shifting the focus from the relationship between Hortensia and Marion. The recent cover for the paperback makes it look like something quite twee, but rest assured, The Woman Next Door is anything but.