Author: Yewande Omotoso
When I bought this book, I thought that I would be drawn into an exploration of the differing views of the main characters. A study of race relations in the very polarised Cape Town, as the blurb promised.
It was, to some extent, an exploration of race but it did not quite delve into the issues that much. I found the narrative tending towards just a telling of the lives of the two women: black and white, retired, former professionals both with legacies of great success in their respective careers. The author provides sufficient back story for both women from early on. I wonder if this did not lend some bias to my empathizing with them as a reader.We meet Hortensia James: black, a former textile designer, childless, widowed, and haunted by decisions she made when she was younger – namely her decision not to have children. We learn of her husband’s infidelity, and quite sadly of what seems to have been a marriage devoid of trust and love. We learn of her anguish in having to fulfil her husband’s dying wish: that she track down and meet the child he conceived with another woman years before. This part of the book I did not find to be that credible, in the face of what was clearly a loveless marriage. Hortensia’s ambivalence towards carrying out this last wish is understandable, but it is also driven by her reluctance to confront the truth about her marriage, and whatever part she may have played in its failure.
Central to the story is Hortensia’s prickly relationship with her neighbour, Marion Agostina. Like Hortensia, Marion is also widowed, a former architect with grown children. Although on the face of it, this seems to be the greatest difference between the two – it is, in fact what makes them similar. Marion’s grown children treat her as more of an annoyance and a burden, and are glaringly absent from her life. Her financial insecurity is the only stark difference between her and Marion, for Marion does not want for anything – giving her that edge over Marion as they grapple with finding an amicable middle ground.
Yewande Omotoso delves into the two women’s lives well enough but backs off somewhat when it comes to exploring their relationship in greater depth. The book becomes a superficial look into the life of a white woman, from a conservative background, living in Cape Town next door to a black liberal woman. Their interactions,as they constantly butt heads over their shared interest in their Homeowner’s Association meetings, come across as rather superficial and stereotypical. Perhaps that was the intention of the author – to depict the shallow nature of race relations in some parts of South Africa.
An accident, which leaves Marion needing a place to stay, results with her moving in with Hortensia and there again I thought this would be an opportunity for the author to really write from the differing points of view. The book becomes a look of the bond the two privileged women form, with the peripheral characters thrown in to make it more interesting. It remains light thought, with moments of humour as the two elderly women move from being hostile to finding a quiet and comfortable middle ground of mutual respect and friendship.
Omotoso touches on the elements of South Africa’s race relations without going into too much detail. As anyone who has lived in Cape Town knows, there is truth to some of the hilarious and disheartening ways in which some Capetonians have come to deal with issues of race. A refusal to acknowledge a political landscape that has changed.