Omotoso has cunningly used a theme we are acquainted with through film and television: older women who are forced to join forces in later life in order to cope with circumstances. Family and friends have passed away or cannot spare time for their aging mothers. The women appear not to like each other but accept each other’s company through lack of better. Meet Hortensia and Marion. Two neighbours who spend their time bickering and using every chance to put the other down.
A renovation at Hortensia’s leads to the front of Marion’s house collapsing and Hortensia being condemned to her house because of a broken leg. The most practical solution is Marion moving into her neighbour’s, coveted house. As a result they start to see where the other has come from. At the end of the novel something resembling friendship has started to surface. Living in a white, gated community in Capetown, Hortensia being a successful designer despite the colour of her skin, Marion having given up her career as an architect in order to take care of the children does not help a budding friendship along. Marion is forced to accept that apartheid had some pretty nasty sides whilst Hortensia distances herself from everything that has to do with apartheid. She’s from Barbados, she has made it, so why bother?
Omotoso uses their lives to subtly confront her readers with the numerous dark pages of South-African history. Reacting differently when confronted with the lingering effects of apartheid makes the examples Omotoso uses hurt even more. By having both Marion and Hortensia look back in time Omotoso makes clear why Hortensia does not seem bothered with apartheid. It also shows that their lives, though superficially comfortable, have not been all that easy.
At the end of the novel both women have taken a more nuanced and gentle view on life, they have grudgingly accepted each other. They have started to become sort of friends. Hortensia and Marion will never be sweet old ladies, their independence and spunk will make sure of that. The Woman Next Door is a well-written novel that subtly combines personal tragedy with universal injustice. Omotoso has put down the two bickering old ladies perfectly.