‘We are lucky who have loved and been loved’ – Yewande Omotoso

Yewande Omotoso’s debut novel ‘Bomboy’ won the South African Literary Award for First Time Author and was shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize.

‘Bomboy’ was also shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize, and made it to the final three at the inaugural edition of the Etisalat Prize For Literature in 2013. In Bomboy, Yewande Omotoso showed that she had the ability to dwell on the smallness and yet uniqueness of a single person’s life. That she is adept at this is established by her masterful storytelling in her second book: ‘The woman next door.’

One of the first things you notice about this book, is the tender care she took with writing about old age and its many nuances. Proof that she spent time researching her subject, sitting with them, talking to them. In a discussion with Molara Wood, Yewande Omotoso said she wanted to know what it felt like to be old, “to have all those years behind you.” Not only did she find out, she was able to adequately capture it in the pages of this book.

If she was not a deft story teller, the book would read like a textbook on how post apartheid Cape Town, still managed to hold on to the last vestiges of its deeply racist past. Yet, by pitting a black woman with Barbadian/Nigerian roots (which is noticeably similar to herself) against a white, Jewish woman who was taught at a young age that black meant bad, she is able to produce a masterpiece that addresses growing old, marital infidelity, racism and how sometimes life throws us the strangest curveballs.

Hortensia James moves into a six-bedroom house in Katterijn, Cape Town with a successful career as a textile designer and over sixty years of a wrecked marriage behind her, plus a husband at death’s door. The people of Katterijn, do not throw her a welcome party, as Yewande Omotoso describes the situation:

“The Katterijners had simply mastered a popular pastime, making a thing appear to be what it is not. But by the time Hortensia had worked all this out she was too tired to move again.”

Her next door neighbor is Marion Agostino, a Jewish woman, whose late husband was Italian. Marion presides over the Katterijn committee meeting which at first glance looks like a group of old women nattering on about non-important things, but on closer inspection, shows the structures we are forced to build in the twilight of our lives to maintain a semblance of control.

Hortensia loses her husband and learns that not only had he managed to have a child with the woman he was unfaithful with, he had also contrived with his lawyer to force her to meet the daughter after his death. Marion who lost her husband earlier has also learned that, not only did he leave her children who hated her and rarely called her, he also left debts that would render her homeless soon.

As both women battle these strange developments, while holding on to their hatred for each other, a freak accident occurs that forces them to shelve their hate and come together for mutual benefit. Where it would be tempting to paint a racist Marion in total black, Yewande Omotoso’s portrayal leaves enough room for empathy, and Hortensia’s bitterness built over decades of hurt makes her fallible. Their eventual compromise shows the power of our individual humanity.

As you follow Hortensia, from a black young girl who fell in love with a white man to a young woman who stalks her husband around a market in Ibadan dressed in disguise, hoping to catch him with his mistress, one almost does not notice the smooth, skillful transitions. She takes us from watching Hortensia clean the bathroom at night, because she cannot fall asleep beside a cheating husband, to the school she attended, the racism she endured and how she once shaved herself bald to spite her mother.

When Marion’s mother contemplated suicide aboard the ship, as they left London for South Africa, she writes:

“It had all been a jumble of nightmares and rain. On the Blue Mary, her mother had been sick often. Sick with the sea, but also sick with the baby. Sick too with fear and a close sense of what is ugly about the world, what it is like to be hunted……

She felt a madness like a fever, and the only thing to end it would be to jump, fling herself and the unborn child over the edge, give them both a simple kind of peace. She held on to the rails and, as if it was a fast wind, the feeling passed.” 

Towards, the end the ladies speak on how they would like to be buried, I ask myself the same question: “How would I like to be buried?”

It is insightful passages like this that make this book a worthy read. Because in the end, it’s the little things that matter, the small, everyday things of our small, yet beautiful lives.

For in the end we realize: “We are lucky who have loved and been loved.”

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