The Woman Next Door: A Novel
by Yewande Omotoso

Published: 2017-02-07
Paperback : 288 pages
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Longlisted for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction A Finalist for the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize A Finalist for the Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize One of the Best Black Heritage Reads (Essence Magazine) One of The Millions' and Refinery 29's Best Books of the Year (So Far), ...

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Longlisted for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction A Finalist for the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize A Finalist for the Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize One of the Best Black Heritage Reads (Essence Magazine) One of The Millions' and Refinery 29's Best Books of the Year (So Far), from One of Publishers Weekly's Writers to Watch

Loving thy neighbor is easier said than done.

Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbors. One is black, the other white. Both are successful women with impressive careers. Both have recently been widowed, and are living with questions, disappointments, and secrets that have brought them shame. And each has something that the woman next door deeply desires.

Sworn enemies, the two share a hedge and a deliberate hostility, which they maintain with a zeal that belies their age. But, one day, an unexpected event forces Hortensia and Marion together. As the physical barriers between them collapse, their bickering gradually softens into conversation and, gradually, the two discover common ground. But are these sparks of connection enough to ignite a friendship, or is it too late to expect these women to change?

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The habit of walking was something Hortensia took up
after Peter fell ill. Not at the beginning of his sickness,
but later, when he turned seriously ill, bedridden. It had
been a Wednesday. She remembered because Bassey the
cook was off on Wednesdays and there were medallions
of lamb in Tupperware in the fridge, meant to be warmed
in the convection oven, meant to be eaten with roasted
root vegetables slathered in olive oil. But she hadn’t been
hungry. The house felt small, which seemed an impossible
thing for a six-bedroomed home. Still, there it was.

‘I’m going out,’ Hortensia had shouted at the banister.
According to the nurses, she wasn’t supposed to leave
him unattended but Hortensia held the nurses and their
opinions in contempt. She didn’t see the need to knock
on the door and tell him she was leaving, either. She had
convinced herself that Peter’s hearing, unlike his deteriorating
body, was intact. That he was capable of hearing
even while buried beneath blankets, hearing through the
closed door of what she called the sickbay, hearing down
the stairs, hearing as she closed the front door behind her.
She’d gone out through the pedestrian gate, looked up
and down Katterijn Avenue and turned right towards the

The Koppie, a small rise in an otherwise flat landscape,
was the obvious place to walk to that first time, and every
time since. Being neither fit nor young, it was important
to her (especially with her bad leg) that the slope was
gradual enough not to be a bother; but still high enough
to afford Hortensia a sense of accomplishment each time
she climbed it. She was petite and her strides were small.
Her walk had grown laboured over the years but in her
youth, with her small stature and vigorous movements,
she had been regularly confused, from afar, for a child.
Her curly black hair cut close to the skull didn’t help her
appear any more adult. Up close, though, there was
nothing childlike about the sharpness of her cheekbones,
her dark serious face, her brown eyes.

Once on top of the Koppie, Hortensia liked to trail
through the grasses and low bush. She wore her hiking
boots and enjoyed the crunch of their soles on the rough
ground. All this had been a surprise that first time;
enjoyment of nature wasn’t generally something
Hortensia engaged in. But at the advanced age she was,
with over sixty years of a wrecked marriage behind her,
this enjoyment was precarious. The slightest thing could
upset it.

The top of the Koppie was planted with wild-growing
vines and scattered pine trees. A path cut through the long
grasses and although it looked maintained, Hortensia
couldn’t help but think of the Koppie as a forgotten land.
Once it became of interest to her she quickly noticed that
the kids of the neighbourhood didn’t play there, and the
adults of Katterijn seemed to flatten the hill with their
gaze, discount its presence.

Soon after she started climbing it – to get away from a
dying man, to give him room to die faster, to catch fresh
air, she couldn’t work out which – some old bat from the
committee mentioned it; put it on the agenda in fact.
Katterijn committee meetings never failed to make much
ado of the quotidian, to wrestle the juices from the driest
of details, to spend at least an hour apiece on the varied
irrelevances experienced by the committee members since
the last meeting.

The Koppie was also a surprise because Hortensia had
reached the age of eighty-five without having understood
the meditative power of walking. How had she missed
that? she scolded herself. But now, with Peter almost
gone, it seemed right that she discover walking, that she
do a lot of it and that she not resist the contemplation
it provoked in her, the harking back to the past, the
searching. These were all things Hortensia had grown
skilled in avoiding. All her life she’d occupied her time
with work. In return her company, House of Braithwaite,
had enriched her and, in exclusive circles particularly in
Denmark, amongst interior designers and fashionably
nerdy textile-design students, made her famous.

Before the Koppie, memories were balls of fire sitting in
the centre of each earlobe. A headache, her doctor in Nigeria
had called it when it first started, but this was no headache.
It was resentment, and Hortensia found that if she looked
away from the things that were rousing – the memories –
she was not happy but nor was she in agony. And then, so
many years later, to discover walking. To discover that if
she remembered while walking, the memories were bearable.
Was it the fact of simultaneously thinking back while moving
forward in a wide-open space, unconstricted? Not that the
walking made the memories come sweetly. They
came with anger and it helped that the Koppie was deserted,
so Hortensia could shout and not be disturbed by any other
living thing except some squirrels and, judging by the small
mounds of sand, a colony of ants.

Katterijn was an enclave of some forty houses within Cape
Town’s suburb of Constantia. Not all owners lived on the
premises; many were European, leased their properties out
and boasted of their African summer homes at dinner
gatherings. The Estate had its origins as a wine farm. When
Hortensia and Peter had moved to South Africa the agency
had made a fuss about the great history of Katterijn, which
went as far back as the late 1600s. A Dutch man, Van der
Biljt (Hortensia found the name unpronounceable), had
visited the Cape, a guest of the Dutch East India Company.
Corruption was rife in the company, and Van der Biljt
was a reluctant part of a team posted by the directors to
bring order to the venality. The parcel of land was gifted
to him to sweeten the deal, encourage him to settle after
the mission was completed, should he so wish. He so did
and eventually used the land to produce wine as well as
fruits and vegetables. Some said Katterijn was the name
of his lover, a slave concubine, but others – more invested
in a de-scandalised history for the neighbourhood –
insisted Katterijn was his daughter. What about the history
of the slaves? Hortensia had asked, because it was in her
nature, by then, to make people uncomfortable. The agent
did not know anything about the slaves of Katterijn; she
directed their attention, instead, to the marvellous view of
Table Mountain.

It had been 1994. South Africa shed blood and had
elections. The USA hosted the World Cup. Nigeria beat
Bulgaria 3–0. Already sick, nothing excited Peter, but soccer
still could. And as the players put the ball through the
goalposts fair and square, a democratically elected president
in Nigeria was arrested; the previous year a perfectly
decent election had been annulled. Hortensia and Peter
agreed to leave Nigeria. After the perpetual warmth, they
were reluctant to return to England’s cold climate. South
Africa with its new democracy, its long summers and famed
medical facilities would ensure the best conditions as Peter
got sicker. They’d arrived to their new home and Hortensia
had realised that she would be the only black person living
in Katterijn as an owner. She’d felt disgust for her
surroundings, for the protected white gentry around her
and, in her private dark moments, she felt disgust for
herself as well.

Despite its beauty, Katterijn turned out to be ugly and,
to begin with, Hortensia was unable to fathom why. Not
one for uncertainty, she preferred simply not to notice the
prettiness at all, then the puzzle of how something apparently
good-looking could generate disgust would be
avoided altogether. The houses were white and green and
the lawns were wide and planted with flowers, bushes and
grass that presented a manicured wildness. Gardens made
to look like they’d sprung up that way, except they hadn’t,
they’d been as good as painted into place; branches trained
and bent into position. 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. And besides, she
wondered if such a place wasn’t just right for her.

Once a month a Katterijn committee meeting was held.
As far as Hortensia understood it, the committee had been
started by a woman named Marion Agostino who also
happened to be her neighbour, a nasty woman who
Hortensia did not like. But then again Hortensia did not
like most people. She had stumbled upon the meetings by
accident, soon after she arrived in Katterijn. No one had
thought to mention that by rights, as an owner, she was
entitled to while away time with the other committee
members. The information was let slip. At the time
Hortensia had felt that the initial omission was not forgetfulness
but deliberate, and it was easy enough to assume
that the slight was based on skin colour. Armed with the
knowledge, Hortensia had taken the short trip to Marion’s
and pressed the buzzer on her intercom.

‘It’s Hortensia James from next door.’

She had not been offended by the absence of any show
of welcome from her neighbour or the other residents.
They had not come to Katterijn to make friends, something
both she and Peter had managed without for the bulk of
their lives.

‘Wait, I’ll call my madam,’ a disembodied voice said.

Hortensia leaned her shoulder against the wall.

‘Hello?’ That must be Marion.

‘It’s Hortensia. From next door.’


This was the moment when Hortensia understood she
would not be invited in. The slight annoyed her briefly,
but she waved it away as unimportant.

‘I’ll be attending the meetings.’ It mustn’t sound like
she was asking permission. ‘The committee meetings.’

‘Hmm, I hadn’t realised you were owners.’

Hortensia still listening at the buzzer like a beggar. ‘Yes,
well, we are.’

‘Oh, well, I was confused. And . . .’ Hortensia could
almost hear Marion searching for another gear, ‘. . . is that
gentleman your husband?’ She wasn’t asking so much as

‘Who, Peter? Yes.’ Again this hadn’t surprised Hortensia.
She’d fallen in love with a white man in 1950s London.
They had been asked on many occasions to verify their
courtship, to affirm that they were attached, to validate
their love. Within a year of being together they were
practised at it. ‘Yes, Peter is my husband.’

‘I see.’

In the silence Hortensia supposed Marion was thinking,
inching towards her next move, preparing another strike,
but instead she heard a sigh and almost missed the details
of the upcoming meeting. Marion even threw in a dress
code as a parting gift.

‘We dress for our meetings, Mrs James. We follow
rigorous decorum.’ As if she thought dignity was something
Hortensia required schooling in.

The meetings seemed to have been created for the purpose
of policing the neighbourhood; keeping an eye out ‘for
elements’, the community librarian had explained to
Hortensia. Foolishness, she’d thought, and soon been vindicated
after attending a few sessions. The meetings were a
show of a significance that did not exist. Old women, with
their wigs, their painted nails, their lipsticks seeping down
whistle lines; scared and old rich white women pretending,
in the larger scheme of life, that they were important.
Hortensia attended because the women were amusing,
nattering on in earnest about matters that didn’t matter.
She enjoyed to think she was laughing at them. But
really it passed the time, took her mind off whatever
else there was.

There were times, however, when the meetings moved
from amusing to offensive. Once, a black couple moved
into Katterijn, renting a duplex not on the Avenue but off
one of the minor roads. They had two children. A neighbour,
an old man, green at the gills and one-toothed,
complained that the children ought not to bother his
postbox. The matter was raised in committee. He claimed
that the children were assaulting his postbox, messing with
it. How did he know this, had he seen it? No, he had
smelt it when he climbed down his stoep to collect the
mail. He knew the smell of brown children. Could this
botheration come to an end? he pleaded. Hortensia had
cursed him, walked out of that meeting. And as if the
Heavens had heard the man’s plea, the botheration came
to an end – he died.

Regardless, Hortensia always went back. To mock them,
to point out to them that they were hypocrites, to keep
herself occupied.

* * *

Hortensia checked her watch. Give or take, there were
usually ten people present, ten of a possible thirty or so
owners. Tonight twelve had shown up. It was all women,
all over sixty, all white. This was Katterijn. The meetings
were usually tedious but this time apparently something
important was to happen. ‘Crucial’ had been the word
used by her neighbour Marion.

‘Evening,’ Hortensia greeted the batty librarian whose
name, just then, she couldn’t remember.

‘Hortensia, good you’re here. Today is crucial.’

As if the word had been circulated, sent out in memo
by Marion. True, there was an extra breeze of excitement.
Hortensia, as always, chose a chair near the door. She did
it deliberately to remind whoever might bother to notice
that she could leave. Well, they could all leave, but it was
particularly important to her for them to know that she
could leave first.

‘Evening, ladies.’ Marion Agostino seemed to press these
words out of her nose. Her smile was painted in a red too
red for white skin, Hortensia thought, showing her distaste,
hoping people would notice. ‘Today’s meeting is particularly

A shiver went round, scented in a bouquet of Yardley,
Anaïs Anaïs and talcum powder. Sometimes Hortensia
hoped the women were pretending, like she was. She hoped
they were there for the same reason, even if secretly. Not
for the discussion of fencing left unfixed, bricks from
previous works uncollected; nor for hedges to be trimmed
or three quotes to be inspected; but for the promise of
something non-threatening and happily boring with which
to pass the time, get nearer to death, get closer to being
done with it all. After so many years of living – too many
– Hortensia wanted to die. She had no intention of taking
her life but at least there were the Katterijn committee
meetings, slowly ticking the hours off her sheet.


Hortensia watched Marion lengthen her stubby neck
and lace her fingers together atop a manila folder obsequiously
named (in elaborate stencil) Katterijn Committee
Meeting File. That the same tattered folder had been in
use for the twenty years Hortensia had been whittling
time away at these meetings proved the kind of nonsense
they’d been up to.

‘Yes, there is this pressing matter, but I first wish to
deal with issues pending from our last meeting . . .’

True to form, Marion was circling the issue, circling.
Marion the Vulture. Hortensia looked around the table.
They were bickering about a swing in a park, just by the
highway that headed back towards the city centre. A
group of vagrants had taken possession of it. Clothes
were seen drying there, strung along the bars. Offensive
smells had been noticed. Someone resolved to take the
message to City Council. Then there was the clutch of
trees that was blocking someone’s view of Table Mountain,
but someone else’s grandmother had planted them, and
so on.

‘Okay, so now,’ Marion was readying for her big strike
of the evening. Her hair was dyed a wan colour to conceal
the fact that she’d been living for over eighty years. At
one meeting Hortensia had overheard her refer to herself
as a woman in her late sixties and almost choked on the
tepid rooibos tea she’d been drinking.

‘. . . finally, ladies, to the matter at hand. I’m not sure
if any of you realise – in fact the only reason I found out
is because of my first granddaughter, I’m sure you all recall
that she’s a law student – well, the point is, a notice has
been made of a land claim in Katterijn. The notice was
published in the Government Gazette by the . . . Land
Claims Commission.’

‘What’s that?’ Sarah Clarke asked.

Sarah was the only other person on the committee who
got so much as a word in edgeways. She was the resident
gossip, now in the unfamiliar position of asking a question,
since there was little that Sarah Clarke did not already know.

‘It’s the . . . Commission . . . it deals with land claims,
things like that.’

Hortensia rolled her eyes. Not that she cared but, naturally,
she knew all about it and said so, explained that the
Commission was set up in the Nineties to restore land
to the disenfranchised. While reaching into the hallowed
folder, Marion spat a look at her.

Marion pulled out a map of Katterijn, which she unfolded
in the centre of the table with a reverence Hortensia had
seldom seen shown for paper.

‘The Land Claims Commission, Sarah, is one of those
things with a self-explanatory name. And now,’ she rose to
point out the parcels of land, ‘a group of some . . .’ she
rifled papers, more a show of importance than a real search
for information, ‘some three families . . . well, one big
extended family, the Samsodiens.’

Marion rifled some more, until Hortensia had to concede
that perhaps she was actually looking for information and,
more than that, the woman looked nervous.

‘What’s the claim, Marion?’

‘Just a moment, Hortensia. Just a moment.’

She found what she was looking for. ‘The claims process
has just this month been reopened, so . . . what I mean is
they’d been closed since 1998 and then, for various reasons,
on the first of July—’

‘Why were they closed?’ asked a woman whose name
Hortensia could never recall.

‘Well, Dolores, they were closed because . . .’ She rifled.
‘Doesn’t say here, but—’

‘The Commission was only open to claims from ’94 to
’98. That was the window-period.’ Hortensia was enjoying
herself. It wasn’t like Marion to give away such easy
points but, while she was being generous, it was Hortensia’s
aim to collect. 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

Marion looked crestfallen. She was of course accustomed
to doing battle with Hortensia, anywhere from the queue
at Woolworths to outside the post office, but these
committee meetings were like sacred ground to her, sacrosanct
– she never got over the shock each time Hortensia
questioned her authority.

‘The Commission,’ Hortensia continued, ignoring
the glare in Marion’s eyes, ‘came about as a result of the
Restitution of Land Rights Act that was passed by the thennew
government.’ Hortensia relished the use of those
words ‘new’ and ‘government’, aware of how much they
affected the women.

‘Alright, alright, Hortensia. If we can just get back
to the actual issue that we – gathered here – must deal
with. The history lesson can continue after the meeting is
over. Thank you. The Samsodiens are claiming land.
The Vineyard basically. I’m surprised the Von Struikers
aren’t here, I’ll make a call and request they attend the
next meeting. It might be their land, but something like
this will affect us all. Don’t even get me started on what
it’ll do for property prices.’

Hortensia hated the Von Struikers. Bigots of the highest
order, they owned the Katterijn Vineyard, bottled a
limited-edition white wine and sometimes a red, neither
of which Hortensia found drinkable. Not because of its
taste; even if the wines were the best thing ever, she would
have found them unacceptable. The thought of drinking
anything made by Ludmilla and Jan Von Struiker made
her sick.

‘They make me sick,’ Hortensia had once railed to Peter
after a dinner at Sarah Clarke’s, where Ludmilla had let
slip the year that she and Jannie had arrived in Cape Town
to start their ‘small venture’. ‘It took her a whole minute
to realise what was wrong with coming to South Africa
in the Sixties.’

Ludmilla pronounced ‘v’ with an ‘f’ sound and resembled
the largest of the babushka dolls. Once, when
Hortensia still deigned to entertain them, she’d offered
her cheeks to be kissed in greeting and caught a whiff of
foul breath. All these details she piled together as incriminating.

‘The claim dates back to the Sixties when the Von
Struikers acquired the land. I’ve made copies here for all
present – you can study the details so we can discuss at
the next meeting. It’s going to be a long haul.’

‘How do you mean?’ Hortensia felt like a fight.

‘Well, we’re going to challenge it of course. I certainly
won’t be allowing this and I doubt Ludmilla and Jan will
be, either. I’m sure, if pushed, these people would be hard
pressed to substantiate the claims. People looking for easy
money, if you ask me.’

‘When you say “these people” what you really mean is
black people, am I right?’

‘You most certainly are not, and I would—’

‘Marion, I’m not in the mood for your bigotry today.
I distinctly remember asking you to keep your racist
conversations for your dinner table.’

‘I beg your—’

‘Ladies. Please. Let’s try and finish the meeting. Marion,
I assume that’s all for now?’ Sarah had her uses. Thick as
she was, she made a good buffer. ‘Shall we continue at the
next meeting? Do we need to type up a formal response
to the Commission? Perhaps you want to speak to
Ludmilla first then feed back to us.’

‘Well, yes, but actually.’ Marion was smiling; so soon
recovered, Hortensia thought woefully. ‘There is one more
thing. Specifically with regards to the Jameses’ property.’
Hortensia’s ears pricked up.

‘This is a special case. Well, not case as such. It’s not a
claim but rather a request.’ Marion relished the moment
and, despite her absent-mindedness just moments before,
she appeared to have memorised all the details of this
‘special case’; she knew it word-for-word, and the spaces
in between – as if she’d written it herself.

‘I received a letter from a woman, Beulah Gierdien. She
had a grandmother named Annamarie, who was born in
1919, right here,’ Marion said and a few of the women
looked around the meeting room, half-expecting to still
find the afterbirth dangling on the back of a chair or laid
out on the plush azure carpet. ‘Annamarie’s mother was
a slave woman on the farm for which No. 10 was the main
house.’ Marion looked pointedly at Hortensia. ‘It states
here that No. 12 – that would be my property – is where
the adjoining slave quarters were, but that . . . well, that
bit is . . . I think they got their facts wrong there. I do
intend to challenge that but, anyway, where was I . . .? I
must say it’s a rather protracted and odd request.’ She was
enjoying herself. ‘There’s no money involved, Hortensia,
so you can relax.’

‘Get on with it, Marion. I need to be getting home

‘Well, it’s precisely that home that Beulah Gierdien
seems interested in, Hortensia. Or at least one of the trees
on the property. She refers to it as a “Silver”.’

‘The Silver Tree. Yes, I have one of those. What, she
wants the tree?’

‘It’s not quite that simple.’

The librarian, Agatha, coughed. A woman, lips newly
Botoxed, poured herself some water but struggled to drink.
People stretched in their chairs; someone’s yawn cracked
and silence settled again.

‘Apparently our Silvers – your single Silver Tree and
my several – marked the edge of the properties in that
day. There were no fences. Anyhow apparently the trunk
of your Silver has some carvings on it.’ Marion arched an
eyebrow. ‘You’d need to confirm that, Hortensia, but that’s
what she’s saying were the markers.’

‘Markers for what?’

‘For where Annamarie’s children are buried. For where
Annamarie requested, in her last will and testament, that
she be buried.’ Marion was beaming.

‘She wants to bury her grandmother on my property?’

‘Correction, she wants to bury her grandmother’s ashes
on the property. The woman’s been dead a while already.’

Through the excited chatter Hortensia snapped her
fingers for Marion to hand over the documents. There
were several sheets of paper, handwritten in a neat cursive.
Hortensia started to scan the pages.

‘Perhaps, while you familiarise yourself with that,
Hortensia, we can call a break. Ladies.’ Marion, her face
beatific, rose and the other women followed suit.

‘And the reason she wrote to you?’

Marion shrugged. ‘She got the contact for the committee
via the Constantiaberg Bulletin. My guess is she assumed
the owners lived overseas and her best bet was to write
to the committee.’ It was always gratifying when outsiders
acknowledged the significance of having a local committee.

Hortensia stayed sitting; she continued reading. The
Katterijn Estate had originally been 65 hectares of land
that, as the years collected, got parcelled and sold and
parcelled and sold. By the 1960s only a small portion was
being farmed, and this was the land the Von Struikers now

In the mid-nineteenth century Annamarie’s grandfather,
Jude, had worked on the original wine farm. He’d also
formed the group of slave men used to construct most of
the buildings from that era, some of which still stood: the
post office, Beulah wrote; the library, which was actually
stables. They built the roundabout and planted most of
the trees that formed the generous groves within the
suburb. Jude was a dark man with paper-white eyes and
small feet that his wife, apparently, had teased him about.
Hortensia grimaced as she read, just the sort of memorylane
nonsense she found difficult to swallow – people
fawning over their individual and collective histories.

Jude and his wife had children as slaves, but grew old
in freedom. Their daughter, Cessie, gave birth to Annamarie.
Jude and his wife, on being granted their freedom, had
been permitted to remain on the land as workers and earn
wages. Annamarie’s parents had inherited the same agreement
and stayed on in Katterijn – raising their family.
Annamarie learned how to read. But by 1939 the Land
Act of 1913 caught up with the small family and they were
forcibly moved off the land. By then Annamarie was
twenty years old, a mother herself and a wife. Except her
first child had died at birth and, after another child died
too, her husband walked off somewhere one night and
was found floating in the lake. Father and babies were
buried under No. 10’s Silver Tree.

Hortensia looked up. Marion was standing by the
refreshments table chewing something; their eyes met.
Marion offered a smile, which Hortensia ignored and
returned to Beulah Gierdien’s notes.

After the tragedies Annamarie settled in Lavender Hill
and married again. They had a boy, Beulah’s father.
Hortensia laid the papers down.

A few of the members were milling around the tarts,
the meeting having gone on for longer than seemed bearable.
Someone had prepared flapjacks, scorned at first
(for fat content, for too-largeness) but eaten by all. People
piled their plates, filled their cups and settled back in
their seats.

‘So you see, Hortensia, this is not about your favourite
topic, the race card. For once we’re on the same side.’
Marion’s smile looked set to burst and set the world alight.

‘Not so.’


‘Not so, Marion. We are not on the same side. You
should know this by now. Whatever you say, I disagree
with. However you feel, I feel the opposite. At no point
in anything are you and I on the same side. I don’t side
with hypocrites.’

Marion was red. And quiet.

‘I am not in agreement with you to push back on the
Samsodien claim. Let those who are justly claiming their
rights to the land – land owned by hoodlums, I might add
– let them claim it.’

‘And the Gierdien woman?’ Marion managed to let out
in a squeak.

‘This,’ Hortensia indicated the pile of papers in front
of her, ‘is sentimental claptrap and I won’t be taking any
notice of it at all. That you thought to waste precious
committee-meeting time on something so trivial is, indeed,
a puzzle to me.’

Marion’s shoulders slumped in defeat. Sarah Clarke slurped her tea. The meeting was adjourned.
... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

1. The residents of Katterijn are described as having “mastered a popular pastime, making a thing appear to be what it is not.” In what ways is this sentiment seen throughout Katterjin and South Africa at large?

2. While Marion is staying at the guesthouse after her home is damaged, she muses, “This is what it feels like to be an old woman, discarded by your own family. Money. The only thing with the power to bring some respite to old age.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement?

3. At a dinner party held when Marion was six years old, she told the guests, “Ma said black is the same as Kaffir.” Some “tutted their disapproval” and many laughed. What does this incident reveal about Marion’s upbringing and about the state of South Africa during Marion’s childhood?

4. After the accident with the crane leaves Hortensia injured and bed-bound, a string of nurses attempt to tend to her. One in particular gets into an argument with Hortensia after he tells her about his “buddy” at the bank who taught him the “African handshake.” Hortensia responds by asking, “Which is it that makes him your ‘buddy’? The fact that he’s black or the fact that he’s poor—or is it both?” What do you think Hortensia was getting at with her question? Do you think it was inappropriate for her to ask the question? Why or why not?

5. Bassey beat Peter “quite brutally” the first time the two played chess, yet he lost every game after. Do you think Bassey lost those subsequent games on purpose? What does this event tell us both about race relations and the relationship between housekeeper and employer?

6. Hortensia learned that in Cape Town “a smiling black woman was a dangerous weapon in its apparent innocuousness.” What does this mean and how does Hortensia deploy this weapon throughout the novel?

7. The main characters in the novel are older women, and they both reflect upon the difficulties of aging. Hortensia finds it especially annoying when the nurses speak to her a tone of voice that suggests she is “mentally deficient.” Have you witnessed this sort of thing in your own life? Did the novel make you change your thoughts about the elderly and how they should be treated?

8. How does Marion’s visit to the library serve as a turning point in the novel and for Marion?

9. The novel jumps from the viewpoint of two complex women—Marion and Hortensia throughout the novel. Why is this structure so appropriate and useful for this novel and the major themes it presents?

10. Why do you think Hortensia decided not to let the nurses in to administer the drip that was helping to keep Peter alive? Do you agree with her actions?

11. The author uses wit and humor throughout the novel in clever ways. What were some specific moments that you found especially funny? Why is humor such an effective tool in this novel in particular?

12. Did you believe Agnes’s story about the painting? Do you think she should have given it back to Marion?

13. What could Peter have meant when he told Marx, “My wife, I love her very much, but that’s the easy part”?

14. How does the relationship that Hortensia and Marion forge by the novel’s end speak to larger issues that have plagued post-apartheid South Africa?

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