This is the story of two women, who live in neighboring houses in an exclusive enclave in Cape Town called Katterijn. We meet Hortensia James first, as she walks toward a wooded rise, a place of refuge from the home where her husband of sixty years is dying. When she and Peter bought that home, No. 10, she became the first black person to own a house in the development. In the thirty years that she has lived there, she has carried on a feud with the owner of No. 12, Marion Agostino. Marion, whose own husband has recently died, heads up a community association that keeps a close eye on the neighborhood. Hortensia found out about the association by accident, Marion having neglected to invite her. She began attending to make a point, even though the trivialities discussed often bore her, but there is always the chance of scoring a point off Marion, or getting under her skin.
The story moves back and forth between the two women, both in their 80s, telling us the stories of their lives, how they came to Katterijn. Marion was an architect with her own firm, until she gave up her career to stay home with her four children. In one of her first commissions, she designed the house where Hortensia now lives, and she has always wanted that house for herself. A lot of her antagonism toward Hortensia is rooted in that envy. Hortensia, born in Barbados, studied art in England. After graduating, she opened a design firm that produces award-winning textiles. When she and Peter (who is white) moved to Nigeria for his work, she opened a studio there, and carried it on to South Africa with their last move. Both women are intensely proud of their own work, their careers, but see the other's as a trade, nothing to brag about. I was pleasantly surprised to find two career women at the center of this story, one still actively working in her 80s. (The author has her own architectural practice, in Johannesburg, according to her author bio.)
One day an accident occurs at Hortensia's house, the effects of which boomerang to Marion's. In the aftermath, the two women slowly begin to talk, rather than just arguing or shutting down. Each has secrets, problems, anxieties she has been carrying alone. Each has been very much alone. But there is so much between them, not just the years of dislike, but the vast differences of race, of background, of experience. Marion, the child of Jewish immigrants fleeing Europe in the 1930s, grew up wrapped in white privilege. Throughout her life, she has closed her eyes to apartheid, to her own racism, to the way she treats her black housekeeper (who must eat from separate dishes, segregated between meals in plastic containers).
Hortensia, a black woman from the Caribbean, who has lived in England and in Nigeria, moved to South Africa after apartheid. As a black woman, she is very much aware of its history and its lasting effects, of the racism like Marion's that still lives. She experienced that racism herself, as a student in England, in marrying a white man, living in Nigeria. Yet she is also on some level an outsider in South Africa, an immigrant herself, which gives her a unique perspective. That's part of the complexity of this story. There are so many layers to their women, their histories, their lives. They are both so strong, have survived so much, but they are also both deeply flawed, as we come to understand.
This is the first of Yewande Omotoso's books to be published in the United States. I am so glad that I came across it on the "New Books" shelves in the library, and I've added her to my "author track" list there, so I'll get an alert about any new books (or if her previous book Bom Boy is released in the US).