cover image The Woman Next Door

The Woman Next Door

Yewande Omotoso. Picador, $16 (288p) ISBN 978-1-250-12457-9

South African Omotoso makes her U.S. debut with this charming, touching, occasionally radiant tale of two prickly octogenarians: two women, one black and one white, neighbors who discover after 20 years of exchanging digs and insults that they might help each other. Eighty-five-year-old Barbados-born textile designer Hortensia James occupies number 10 in the small upscale Cape Town community of Katterijn. In 1994, when Hortensia and her white husband purchased the house, she became Katterijn’s first black homeowner. Now, 20 years later, she’s a widow who excels at cutting remarks, many aimed at the widow next door, 81-year-old Marion Agostino, self-appointed community leader and number 10’s architect. Their mutual animosity is well established until a repair project leaves Hortensia with a broken leg and Marion in need of temporary housing. Seeing an opportunity to avoid home nurses (whom Hortensia detests even more than she detests Marion), Hortensia invites Marion to move in with her. These creative women then create their own kind of crotchety companionship as Hortensia meets her late husband’s daughter and the descendants of slaves that once occupied her land, while Marion confronts her failures as a mother, employer, and white woman under Apartheid. Omotoso captures the changing racial relations since the 1950s, as well as the immigrant experience through personal detail and small psychological insights into mixed emotions, the artist’s eye, and widow’s remorse. Hers is a fresh voice as adept at evoking the peace of walking up a kopje as the cruelty of South Africa’s past. (Feb.)