(Important Note: This post differs from others in that this will be a crosspost with the website “Girls Gone International”, an organization that has book clubs all over the world. Since I currently run the one in Stockholm, this post follows the formula of Book club spotlights on their site. Therefore the style of review is a little different.)

This August the Stockholm GGI book club had as their book of choice the novel ”The Woman Next Door” by Yewande Omotoso. The book has been long listed for The Bailey´s Womens Prize for Fiction, which as the theme for the August meetup, motivated the choice of the text. The Stockholm GGI meetup group decides the novels through a poll; “The Woman next door” won overwhelmingly so.

In attendance for the discussion were five female members of the club, not including myself, who is the organizer of this small band. Not all had finished the book, but it didn´t prevent the evening from becoming a lively and invigorating discussion regardless. A noted problem with the book, that was a focus for the discussion, was that while the writing style and language was easy to engage with, many found the two main leads distancing and unlikeable. This was noteworthy as the book is adamantly character driven making this a fundamental issue to the text and creating a difficulty in merging with the unfolding of the narrative and form. Yet, at the last, and on the whole, the attending members of the group all seemed vaguely positive about the novel despite this haunting flaw.

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The novel recounts a tale of two women living in Cape Town: Hortensia and Marion. Both women are in their eighties, recently widowed, and both are successful, but former, career women. Marion is white and has lived in South Africa since early childhood, Hortensia is black and has moved to South Africa only recently, after growing up in London and living in Nigeria as an adult. The two women hate each other passionately, and the novel builds on the antagonism between them while delving into their respective past lives. This recitation of their lives garners a number of topics and historical moments and touches on Apartheid, racial discrimination and dysfunctional marriages. While the novel is advertised as the two being forced to live together and therefore becoming more friendly with each other, it should be noted that the plot twist of the two of them having to live together is introduced quit late in the novel.

Those in attendance of the book club had a convergence of agreement that, what seemed the overriding theme of the novel, i.e. race relations, was the strongest part in the novel. The members of this group agreed that the novel discussed racism with understanding and nuance, and portrayal of the protagonists resonated with the reader. General accord in our group was that the subject was not only interesting but also an important one in the current epoch of the immigrant and the newly rising ethnic tensions of the world. That said, however, the growing mutual acceptance and redemption aspect in the novel, with Hortensia and Marion becoming less antagonistic with each other and finding a tolerant appreciation in their relationship, felt rushed, and faintly hallow to some in our debates on the story. The way the women warmed up to one another did feel natural, but that too little time was given to it to expand this budding appreciation into a full human understanding. Some pointed out that usually, in real life, the reason why people change is because they want to. And, in the narrative case of both Marion and Hortensia, the attendees were skeptical with the general feeling given in the text that these two embraced the notion of a change enough to reach an understanding and tolerance. In other words, there was the question of how believable the character development was.

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In the narrative itself, there existed the specific scenes we all particularly loved. The one that resonated and was most heavily praised in our unceremonious assembly was an unsettling scenario with Marion recalling being asked by her children why she buys a separate kind of toilet paper for her black housekeeper. This slice in the narrative exposes the deep seat of Marions prejudice and with the excavators of her bias’s being her own children becomes a scathing indictment of the false consciousness of prejudice. The attendees elaborated further on the aftermath of that scene, all agreeing that when it turns out that the housekeeper had been buying her own toilet paper and refusing to use the poor quality kind Marion had bought for her was, in the attendees words, ”Awesome”. Certainly, though we had misgivings about the enticements of the tale, this engagement that the readers had with this juncture of the story engaged the readers and was revealed the subtle believably of the text.

The narrative structure of the book is formulated on alternative point of views between Hortensia and Marion, as well as tells events and stories of both their lives in flashbacks. Because of this structure the novel was, at times, comparatively confusing to some of the attendees, me included. Some in our group indicated that they had at times had to return and re-read passages to understand who´s point of view we were reading. As for myself, the rapidity of change which the author imposed on the reader in regards to the narrative alterations felt exceedingly jarring and broke what intensity the flow of the story should have had at times.

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One of the narrative objects that was loved by the entirety of the company, including me, was the fact that the main leads were of a forgotten faction of our world: older women. It was very refreshing to read about women who were not young, and it was very unusual to read about older people changing their ways and not being fixed as per the clique of the older members of our society . This made the novel feel fresh.

Recurring words used at the meetup were: Interesting, important, hard, confusing and enlightening.

The discussion was very rich and we got a lot out of ”The Woman Next Door” and were glad we had picked it for the Month of August. An honest account of our world today.

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