The African/Middle East section of older women around the world begins here, in South Africa, more specifically, in post-Apartheid South Africa.
I found The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso in a list of recommended books by women of colour. It features a feud between two older women so here’s a novel with not one but two older women. I have some reservations about the theme of the feud, for many people believe that women cannot coexist without feuding. This is not true, of course, but we are trying to present new images of older women. Maybe the value of this book is in the resolution of the feud. It was long-listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017.
The Woman Next Door
Hortensia and Marion are neighbours in Katterijn, a nice suburb in Cape Town, South Africa. Set in the present day the Apartheid era is behind them, although of course its legacy persists. The former tensions are not the focus of this novel. Rather Yewande Omotoso looks at the small scale of individual relationships, antagonisms and antipathy.
Hortensia and Marion have in common their age, both in their 80s, that they have achieved success in their careers, and that they are widows. But they disagree about everything and their mutual animosity is well known to everyone, especially the women who attend the Katterijn Committee.
An accident in which Hortensia breaks her leg and Marion’s house is badly damaged is the novelist’s device that brings changes in their relationship.
The older women
The title leads you to expect only one old woman, but the subject of the novel is the relationship of the neighbours, and how they have got themselves into their mutual animosity, and what will bring them closer together.
Marion was formerly a noted architect, indeed she designed the house that Hortensia now occupies, which is one source of tension. At the outset of the novel she commands the committee meeting and it quickly becomes apparent that Marion retains some of attitudes from the Apartheid era. She is a white woman and knows nothing of the life of her African home help. Issues of land, reclamation and compensation, are still of keen interest to the inhabitants of Katterijn and to Marion’s committee. The Committee allows Marion to bully the other women, as in this beautiful put-down of Sarah who had asked what the Lands Claims Commission did.
‘The Lands Claims Commission, Sarah, is one of those things with a self-explanatory name.’ (11)
Marion’s husband died without leaving her anything to live off and she must consider her options.
Hortensia came to South Africa, via Nigeria, having been born in Barbados. She is a successful fabric designer. She came with her white husband, and at the start of the novel he is terminally ill. There is doubt in Hortensia’s mind about the value and honesty of their long marriage. Hortensia knew that her husband had had an affair that lasted for many years with a white woman, but she discovers that they had a child because the terms of his will require Hortensia to acknowledge and meet this unknown daughter. This is very hurtful as Hortnesia’s lack of children was a burden to her.
Hortensia’s natural stance is oppositional. Here is an example.
The Constantinople Private Hospital staff didn’t take long to fear Hortensia. She’d arrived at the hospital on a stretcher but, on waking, had immediately managed to insult the paramedic. (85)
She offends the nurses who attended her husband, and later care for her when she breaks her leg. She questions every suggestion by Marion in the Katterijn Committee Meetings. Only the kindly Dr Mama and her own home help Bassey are able to tolerate her argumentative nature.
I wondered whether it wasn’t a bit of a cliché to portray women in their 80s as irascible, contentious, argumentative and difficult. However as the novel progresses we see what they have had to put up with in their long lives, the opposition they meet as successful women, their dubious marriages, Marion’s neglectful children and so forth.
The author is sympathetic to the difficulties, the physical incapacity the women encounter in their 80s. It is in the small things, the details of two lives lived in a concrete setting that understanding and warmth is created: in the favours done, the help proffered, the companionship enjoyed.
A note about the cover
The cover of the Vintage edition of the book, with its garland of purple flowers around green binoculars seems to suggest some kind of chicklit, perhaps for older readers (henlit?). I prefer the hardback cover, being more edgy and less pretty feminine.
The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso Vintage (2016) 288pp
Posted by Caroline Lodge of Bookword