Across South Africa’s fences
“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,” so Hortensia tells her neighbour in the first chapter of ‘The Woman Next Door’. In that statement is much of the premise of Yewande Omotoso’s quietly accomplished second novel, in which two women in their eighties snipe at each other across the contested terrains of race, history and everything in-between.
Hortensia is black, and the trajectory of her life has taken her from the Caribbean to Britain, where she met her English husband Peter, with whom she lived for decades in Nigeria, before settling in South Africa. They live in the Katterijn, a community in Cape Town, where Hortensia would have felt like something of an endangered species upon arrival, as the only non-white house owner. Every other black person is part of the mass of servants that attend to the affluent whites. It is the new South Africa, but in communities like Katterijn, Apartheid may as well not be over.
In this setting, it is perhaps no surprise that the headstrong and acerbic Hortensia would be constantly at loggerheads with the Marion, who presides over the Katterijn Committee, which seems defined by what is kept out, who is excluded. Not only has Hortensia intruded into this white enclave, she lives in Marion’s dream home which she designed during her days as a top architect. Both women had highly successful careers in their prime, and the fine details of those professions form part of the richly observed texture of this novel.
The unsentimental Hortensia makes no secret of her disdain for Marion and the other preening housewives on the Committee. They hold on to vestiges of past exceptionalism. But to Hortensia, it is: “Just the sort of memory-lane nonsense she found difficult to swallow – people fawning over their individual and collective histories.”
The two women are widows (Hortensia’s husband, Peter, is dying as the novel opens and is soon sent off to his grave) with chequered experiences of marriage while motherhood has also presented its own challenges. All they have left are their houses and a mutual hatred, but there is trouble in store. Things come to a head when a freak accident renders one physically incapacitated and the other homeless, albeit temporarily, leaving them no choice but to reach across the fence.
The author uses the women’s relationship to explore the history of South Africa – the land, the characters, their parents and their origins – to suggest that the country has not really exorcised the ghost of its past. We soon realise that it is not so much the fixation with history that Hortensia detests, but the “delusions about the human capacity for real, lasting truth and reconciliation.”
She never misses a racist turn, having braved the 1950s in the UK, where her in-laws asked about the potential offspring of an interracial marriage. “What would it be, though? What would you have? As if, Hortensia thought, Peter’s parents were breeders wondering about the outcome of mating their prize stallion with a questionable mare.” The scene is made even more believable for the reader by a recent news headline about the pregnant tennis champion, Serena Williams.
In England, Hortensia had experienced: “What she called ‘the frieze’. Hard stares from… people who looked through you, not at you; stares intent on disappearing you.” Little wonder she lacerates through the hypocrisies of race in South Africa, and Omotoso deploys her character to devastating effect. When a male nurse tries “to unburden himself of whiteness by suggesting how non-racial he was and how many black friends he had and how wonderful Mandela was,” Hortensia is only sickened by his “PC-diarrhoea,” to his shock. “He’d begun to produce a litany of anecdotes to absolve himself of any sense of responsibility for the kind of wrongdoing that white people have been known to inflict almost everywhere they have been.”
As for Hortensia: “She’d done her own study of the nation, post-’94. Cheap tricks like handshakes and cute localised expressions to hide what was really needed. Slogans in place of the real dirty slog required if unity was truly the goal.”
Marion and her ilk are the way they are and have become quite adept at it over time, because: “This life of ignoring the obvious required a certain kind of stamina.” The subjugation of black domestic workers is largely refracted through Marion’s own eyes – the maid of her youth who had “an inventory of scars” – and the conflicted relationship with her own maid of many years, Agnes, who finds her voice at the same time as her mistress’ awakening. “Even when it happened right underneath my nose I did nothing. I walked past people and didn’t see them. I blanked out an entire population, a history,” Marion admits. This is partly what it took to sustain a system like Apartheid; people refusing to see.
Although Hortensia’s relentless snark does get a tad wearying and hackneyed at times, she is the most compelling character in the book. Her relationship with her own housekeeper, Bassey, is mutually respectful (“She did not own him; he did not owe her”). But she is also well practised at the boundaries that sustain such arrangements, having lived a privileged life with an expatriate husband in Nigeria, where she was always called ‘Madam’. Always, the author challenges us to look and see what we might otherwise look through.
Omotoso delves deep into the psychology of her characters, such that they offer fascinating portraits of lives fully lived. The Land Claims Commission case for land reparations, the last wish of a dead slave, and the startling scene of young lady by her father’s tombstone – make for a richly layered narrative. The past is never really dead, the novel suggests. ‘The Woman Next Door’ is a very satisfying read. One almost dreads what the author will write next.
•The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso; 279 pages; Farafina (2017).