When two old ladies go to war

CityPress - - Voices -

has ac­cu­mu­lated over the decades.

When an ac­ci­dent forces the two neigh­bours to cross the bar­rier of hate that has so­lid­i­fied over the years, the pet­ti­ness of their ri­valry trans­forms into a pro­found re­la­tion­ship built on shared mem­o­ries rooted in shame, guilt and love.

In her sec­ond novel, Ye­wande Omo­toso weaves the lay­ers of the main char­ac­ters’ per­sonal nar­ra­tives through­out the story del­i­cately and de­lib­er­ately, in a way that can only be truly ap­pre­ci­ated af­ter read­ing the last page. Al­though the racially charged hos­til­ity be­tween Horten­sia and Marion ini­tially comes off as a slightly overblown ri­valry be­tween em­bit­tered old folk, the na­ture of the re­la­tion­ship stems from the emo­tion­ally chal­leng­ing pasts on which both women now sit and re­flect. Read­ers must be pa­tient with any frus­tra­tions they may feel with each char­ac­ter and trust that, upon learn­ing more of the women’s lives while pro­gress­ing through the plot, se­crets will un­fold, thoughts will be trig­gered and per­cep­tions will be changed.

As Horten­sia and Marion grap­ple with the dra­mas of old age and death, Omo­toso un­earths a buried dis­course sur­round­ing the skele­tons in South Africa’s post-apartheid closet, in­clud­ing land rights, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and white guilt. She art­fully off­sets th­ese darker themes that de­mand to be ad­dressed by in­cor­po­rat­ing lighter tales on the fragility of love and di­as­poric tri­umph.

By the end of The Woman Next Door, the two char­ac­ters have ma­tured in the reader’s imag­i­na­tion from two mean se­nior cit­i­zens who hate each other to two trou­bled, ro­man­tic and pas­sion­ate women with fa­tal flaws that are use­less to fix so late in their lives. Omo­toso paints th­ese two char­ac­ters over the course of the plot slowly and steadily with an elo­quence and de­gree of hu­mour that some­times war­rants a line to be read two or three times for max­i­mum ap­pre­ci­a­tion. Al­though the two reg­u­larly en­gage in lively de­bate af­ter be­ing forced to­gether, whether Horten­sia and Marion man­age to cre­ate some­thing one can call a friend­ship, how­ever, re­mains up for in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

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