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Megan ([personal profile] mixedmetaphors) wrote2017-04-03 06:38 pm

Shuffle 1: Yewande Omotoso, The Woman Next Door (2017)

cover shows two illustrated, contrasted houses separated by a hedgerow"She had teeth in her heart. Marion knew they shouldn't be there, but there they were: teeth in her heart."

Hortensia James and Marion Agostino share a few similarities: they're both of a certain age, they're both widowed or nearly widowed, they both worked their hearts out to get to the top of their respective professional fields, and for different reasons, they each started living small--making themselves smaller, smothering a part of themselves--years ago. You wouldn't know this self-repression or their similarities from looking at them, as it's their decades of venomous bickering that's left a very public impression: "Their rivalry was infamous enough for the other committee women to hang back and watch the show. It was known that the two women shared hedge and hatred and they pruned both with a vim that belied their ages."

When the two are forced to live together following an accident, the forced intimacy allows them to both re-trace the grooves of their antagonism as well as create some new connections. It allows secrets and truths and confessions to grow.

The Woman Next Door is a tightly-focused character study of two elderly neighbors in South Africa. I'd particularly recommend this to readers who love periodic deep dives into backstory--frequent if graceful shifts between the present and the past--because that's where the magic of Omotoso's storytelling lies. She shines a light on what history is, and how things get lost, and how we fail to be as brave as we ought to be, and what we do as a result.

Hortensia and Marion's interactions are spiteful and bitter, and the text didn't immediately provide a lot of grounding for it. This still worked for me, because I liked Omotoso's neat, jigsaw prose, and I could already see where she was undermining simplistic preconceptions and having fun with some gentle humor. Both women ended up fleshed out, felt real and complex to me, and I was eagerly reading to know how their hearts and their identities had been shaped. I also appreciated how Omotoso focused on embodiment and the connection between how aging feels physically and how it feels emotionally:
"Her walk had been the first thing to go that really hurt. A dash of grey on her head, a slight dip in breasts small enough for dipping not to matter, an extra line on her neck had never bothered her. Her eyes were good, her teeth were hers. But the loss of her walk was the first sign that time was wicked and had fingers to take things. It wasn't just dates up on a wall, it was a war. Time took away her walk. She awoke one morning with the left leg aching, a throb that would come and go but never permanently leave. So now she lumbered, she limped; many times she sat, but since she'd reached sixty-five, she hadn't sauntered. When you're Hortensia James and you have pride but no walk to saunter it with--well, life is difficult."
Both women have a complicated relationship to their own histories, and how they've disappointed themselves in the past. Some of the self-examination they engage in isn't pretty. I appreciated that the Omotoso didn't shy away from the ugliness of racism, and whether reconciliation is even possible by anyone who knows, anyone who remembers. She doesn't offer answers, but she still makes these characters live with that question. Just like all of us have to, if we bother to look.

This is a book that allows its protagonists to be mean-spirited and cowardly, that allows us to understand these women and know that they have reached the end of their lives feeling unsatisfied and lonely. But it does show some redemption in how they come together, the choices they make now, the apologies they're capable of, the forgiveness they might not be capable of. In that way, I was a little surprised that the very ending felt a bit sweet, with only the slightest hint of tart, and I did want something a little more twisty, maybe more bitter. Maybe that was because Omotoso was so clear and skillful at depicting how hate and irrationality consume a person:
"At the age of thirty-one Hortensia James started to hate. It took her some time, the way certain fads stutter before they really take off. She wrestled it for a while, resisted. She understood that hate was a kind of acid and she preferred not to burn. Also hate was unpopular and, back in those days anyway, she'd still wanted to be liked.

The longing slowly left her, though. She went from resenting just Peter, to the housekeeper, the driver, the market woman. People were slow, simple-minded; they all harbored ill intentions, seemed determined to be unhelpful, especially when their jobs required being of service. They didn't answer questions properly, spoke as if they had been trained all their lives to frustrate whoever addressed them. Hortensia's foul temper kept her mouth in a line, her brow knit, her teeth pressed together and her eyes cutting. She got good at chopping the legs off people, with no knife, with only words. She was always angry and while, initially, she noticed it (worried that it shouldn't be there), it slowly became what was normal. She developed headaches. She tied a block of concrete to her ankle and let it drag her down. Hating, after all, was a drier form of drowning."
This is the first book I've read from this year's Baileys Prize longlist, and it's a strong start. For the most part, it was a nuanced and insightful read, and especially for such a focused story--two small lives on the edge of history, near the end of their own history--it's graceful and encompassing.

These three books were the random selection for Shuffle 2:

Sarah Waters, Fingersmith (2002)
Anita Desai, Fasting, Feasting (2000)
Sue Miller, Lost in the Forest (2006)

I'm leaning toward the Waters, because I've read her before and I've also enjoyed the TV adaptation. But all three books sound promising. I'll see what I feel like reading!