After having my mind blown by The Power I needed something a little lighter to read and so I turned to this next in my Baileys Prize TBR pile.
The Woman Next Door is the story of two women in their eighties. As the title suggests, Hortensia and Marion live next door to each other in an affluent Cape Town suburb. Hortensia is black, originally from Barbados while Marion is white and a Cape Town native. On the face of it they have a lot in common. Both are recently widowed and have made some unsettling discoveries about the men they spent their lives with. Both had impressive careers, in architecture and design. However, they also hate one another. It is only an unforeseen accident that forces the two together.
This is a light read but it takes on a lot: loneliness, racism, betrayal. Both women are facing the end of their lives and having to admit to themselves that they ‘made do’. Neither had a particularly happy marriage and both have been left with their husband’s secrets to deal with. It seems inevitable that the women will end up finding common ground, but it’s not made easy. Both are fairly cantankerous, and they seem to enjoy winding one another up.
There is added tension in the fact that Marion is without doubt a product of the old apartheid society. She claims that Hortensia plays the ‘race card’ too often, but her own children call her racist. One of the funnier moments is when Marion discovers that her black maid, Agnes, has been bringing her own toilet paper to work. Marion had decided that her own two ply tissue was not necessary for Agnes and had provided her with one ply. Agnes, disagreeing, brought three ply with her instead, forcing Marion to upgrade her own toilet paper so as not to be outdone.
Where I struggled a little with the book was the past history of the women. I didn’t really understand why Marion didn’t get on with her husband, or why she had so many children when she didn’t come across as the maternal type and clearly resented having had to give up her architectural practice. I was also unsure why Hortensia, who had endured dirty looks and being spat at on the streets of 1950s London, accepted at an early age that her marriage would not be what she’d hoped. Obviously there was a lot more going on than this (not wanting to give too much away!) but I didn’t buy it completely. I wanted more interaction between the partners during those scenes set in the past. I found these flashback scenes more interesting than the storyline in the present, for the most part.
Overall, I thought this was a strong novel, deserving of its longlist status, but I would be surprised to see it on the shortlist just because the competition this year is so incredible.