The Woman Next Door - Yewande Omotoso | A Review by Katharine Geldenhuys
The Woman Next Door is Yewande Omotoso’s second novel. It follows five years after Bom Boy, for which she won the South African Literary Award for a First-time Published Author, as well as being short-listed for the South African Sunday Times Fiction Prize.
The launch for The Woman Next Door took place on a chilly evening early in May at Book Lovers in Melville, Johannesburg. The venue was packed, and at this cosy and intimate event, Omotoso was in conversation with Elinor Sisulu, author of Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime (for which Sisulu won the 2003 Noma Award for Publishing in Africa).
Sisulu applauded Omotoso’s latest literary offering, reserving specific praise for the editing of the text, which speaks to Omotoso’s refined writing style. Omotoso pointed out that the manuscript underwent a number of re-writes and edits and expressed her belief in the importance of authors being open to constructive criticism. Sisulu heartily agreed with this opinion, noting it as an important part of the writing process which can only enhance the final literary product (and one which is sometimes unfortunately ignored).
The text is indeed technically easy to read with inter-twining story-lines that flow effortlessly despite the alternating perspectives of the protagonists and the shifts between past and present. The ease with which one reads this text, together with a judicious use of gentle humour, belies the challenging themes which Omotoso confronts in her narrative. A thought-provoking and effective juxtaposition between style and subject matter is thus produced.
The book jacket blurb begins with an apparently neat categorisation of the two protagonists: “Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbours. One is black, one white.” As we journey through the stories of their lives, however, Omotoso skilfully unravels any associated pre-conceptions the reader may have.
Each of the elderly female protagonists is “the woman next door” for the other, and each woman embodies the “other” and a source of discomfort for her neighbour. Through their openly adversarial relationship, Omotoso tackles the fraught social issues of race, gender, ageing, financial and social privilege, and land ownership/re-distribution within the personal and personalised spaces of Hortensia and Marion. Indeed, as Kwanele Sosibo has noted:
Omotoso’s training as an architect is evident in the book’s premise. Hortensia and Marion’s coldness is played out behind closed doors, so to speak. Their moments of introspection and their eventual attempts at redemption play out in the richly textured descriptions of their living spaces
Both Hortensia and Marion have had successful careers during a time when most women were home-makers. Marion was an architect and Hortensia, a textile designer. They have achieved in industries which aim at the creation of beautiful and harmonious living spaces. Ironically, their successes in their respective industries are not echoed in their own home lives, despite the fact that both live in lovely houses in an exclusive Cape Town suburb. Disillusionment and disappointments in married and family life have saddened and embittered both.
During the book launch discussion, Omotoso expressed her unease with the human urge to pigeon-hole one another into pre-conceived categories. Omotoso herself, resists easy, neat categorisation. As the daughter of a Barbadian mother and Nigerian father, she was born in Barbados and raised in Nigeria, but has lived in South Africa since 1992. As such, she asserts her tendency to identify with the outsider/loner and pointed out her proclivity towards portraying such characters in her work.
She explored the eccentric loner, Leke Denton, in her debut novel, Bom Boy. As the son of a white mother and Nigerian father, he is raised by adoptive white parents in South Africa and struggles find his place within society. The experience of the outsider is considered in very different ways in The Woman Next Door, this time from divergent perspectives of Hortensia and Marion. Both elderly female protagonists endure the strain of being the outsider in various ways, and to different degrees, throughout their lives.
Hortensia is portrayed as the more obvious “outsider”, having been a poor Barbadian immigrant in England who marries an Englishman in the early 1950s, moves to Nigeria and finally settles, as an independently wealthy woman, in an exclusive (predominantly white) neighbourhood in Cape Town. In many ways, she is the more strongly-developed and successful of the two, although both Hortensia and Marion have had to withstand the disapproving attitudes towards determined and successful career women in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
Marion is the daughter of poor Jewish exiles who strive to ignore their roots and work their way up in Cape Town society. Later in life, Marion is forced to confront her own racial prejudices, loss of social standing, and familial estrangement which comes with the associated senses of guilt, shame and alienation. Issues concerning marriage and motherhood are not romanticised, and the negative physical and social aspects of ageing are aptly portrayed.
Omotoso develops Hortensia and Marion in ways which elicit the reader’s empathy with them whilst never allowing one to lose sight of the quite palpable flaws of both. The narrative is engaging and provocative without slipping into didactic moralising: the reader is left to make his/her own judgements. The whole is at turns humorous, exultant and heart-rending, and the ending avoids idealistic glibness by being both hopeful and realistic.
In my opinion, Yewande Omotoso achieves a rare feat with The Woman Next Door: a text worthy of scholarly attention which deals with contentious social issues, whilst still being an entertaining read.
Omotoso, Yewande. 2016. The Woman Next Door. London: Penguin Random House. 279pp. ISBN 978-1-78474-034-4
 Sosibo, K. 13 May 2016. Neighbourly complicity: Yewande Omotoso's The Woman Next Door. Mail & Guardian On-line. http://mg.co.za/article/2016-05-13-neighbourly-complicity-yewande-omotosos-the-woman-next-door/
 Omotoso is currently working on her third novel, tentatively titled Sleeping Not Dreaming, where she intends to scrutinise more closely society’s narrow conceptions of motherhood.
Little Suns - Zakes Mda | A Review by Elke Seghers
There were others before him. But we start with Malangana because that is where our story begins
The South African novelist, poet and playwright Zakes Mda, author of critically acclaimed novels like Ways of Dying and Heart of Redness, has published his tenth novel. Little Suns starts in the fashion of the oral storytelling tradition of praise poets who pass on the history of South African clans from generation to generation. The books intertwines the historical events of the murder on colonial magistrate Hamilton Hope at the end of the 19th century with the legends of the amaMpondomise, bolstering this historical novel with clan genealogy. The protagonist Malangana who is tasked to groom the horse of his brother king Mhlontlo is not more than a side note of history, a 'little sun' in the universe. However, his story provides us insight into the heroic resistance of his people against the colonial occupation. When magistrate Hope disrespects the amaMpondomise by, amongst others, forcing them to take up arms against Basotho rebels in the Basotho gun war of 1880 - 1881, he gets assassinated by Mhlontlo and his men, who subsequently go into exile in Lesotho.
Next to dealing with this episode in history, the novel tells Malangana's personal story of what could not be. The encounter with the British in 1880 puts Malangana's marriage with the bushmen girl Mthwakazi on hold, as he has to defend his people at the loss of leading his own life. While residing in exile, Malangana never stops thinking of what he missed out on. The events of 1880 are alternated with Malangana's search of that time lost and pursuit of Mthwakazi in 1903: 'He has returned to continue exactly where he left off. Except he cannot continue alone. Hence his quest.' (p.9)
By jumping between 1880 and 1903, the book plays out the universal against the particular. As Malangana starts writing history by taking part in the struggle, the possibility of a love affair is wiped out, suggesting that being a hero conflicts with leading a personal life. Significantly enough, the book ends when the love story begins, signalling how the particular is never part of history. In that sense, Little Suns reflects upon traditional history, which, unlike the novel, is not concerned with singular stories. In short, Mda's book balances historical events with what is not part of history.
Linking to this, the novel integrates aspects of many different genres. While the book relies heavily on names and dates, which gives it a sense of historical accuracy, it is interlaced with the magical, incorporated by means of legends, folk tales and songs. This is not surprising as, for the research for Little Suns, Mda combined historical records with the stories his relatives, descendants of the amaMpondomise, shared with him. By mixing the factual with the anecdotal, this novel reminds us of how blurry the boundaries between history and story truly are. In 1903, the assassination of Hope is just as true as Malangana's compulsion to neigh like a horse and the existence of the folkloric Thunderman. Little Suns also signals the confidence sometimes placed in traditional beliefs like, for example, the mystical instinct umkhondo. Ergo, the book emphasizes that truth is relative and that there are many ways to recount the past.
The existence of conflicting stories shows most clearly in the theme of colonization. The book exhibits the derogatory discourse of the colonizers and tells of the reply of the amaMpondomise, who, when attacked in their traditions, kill Hope in a final bid for self-governance. This event has different meanings, as for one side it is a cruel act of violence, while for the other a symbol of last resistance. Little Suns suggests that the war for power is not only waged with weapons, but also with words, as the British are trying to claim the land by renaming it and, for example, the Senqu river becomes the Orange River. Significantly enough, the amaMpondomise try to uphold their pride with a mock trial against the British. Colonization is after all also about discourse, about the stories that live in the minds of the people. This is however a story of defeat for the amaMpondomise and they become more and more assimilated into the colonial system, eventually even on the level of the landscape they inhabit, as the British administration makes an attempt at 'taming the landscape and making it more civilised by planting pine, gum and popular trees imported from the mother country' (p.212).
In 1903, we see the effects of the British scramble for power. When Malangana returns from exile, the days of the kingdom of the amaMpondomise are over, and new people have come to live in the region and lord over its old inhabitants. The place has changed, but at the same time it is inevitably connected with its history. Similarly, Malangana may have become an old man, but he has not made peace with his past. Mthwakazi haunts him in his nightmares and the traumatic loss of the horse he used to groom has resulted in Malangana uncontrollably neighing like a horse. By going back and forth between 1880 and 1903, we are reminded that the past lives on in the present and that time is always compressed. In that sense, Little Suns is also concerned with present-day South Africa, which has become what it is because of its history. And if the country neighs, that has its reasons.
In summary, Little Suns is so much more than a historical novel. It is a book reflective of its own nature, balancing history with story and past with present. It is hybrid in genre, feeding historically accurate events with chunks of legends, folk tales and songs. As it jumps between 1880 and 1903, Mda's book comprises romance and politics, the particular and the universal, the legend and the historical, the little suns and the big ones.
Mda, Zakes. 2015., Little Suns. Cape Town: Umuzi, ISBN: 978-1-4152-0904-2 (Hardback)