Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbors in Katterjin, an exclusive, wealthy subdivision in post-Apartheid South Africa. Katterjin’s predominantly white status quo is broken when Hortensia, a hugely successful, black designer, purchases the first house that Marion, an equally successful, white architect, ever designed.
Twenty years later, Marion’s history of nonchalant, unthinking racism and Hortensia’s bitter inability to suffer fools lightly have led to a relationship built on distrust, dislike, and intentional antagonism. But when a freak accident leaves Hortensia in need of a nurse and Marion, a place to live, the two attempt to put their differences aside. For a pair of women in their 80s, who have lived lives of prideful anger and superiority, this truce proves to be very difficult.
Like Hortensia and Marion, I began this book judgmentally. The two protagonists were so off-putting, so toxic, I doubted I would finish the book. But after a few chapters, Marion and Hortensia each begin to recount the circumstances from their past that led them to live such angry lives. Their bitterness is revealed as a symptom of deeper sadnesses, loneliness, and disappointment. I began by disliking the two women, but soon I was rooting for them, hoping they could move past their differences and find some solace in this potential friendship.
Though race is central to the conflict in Yewande Omotoso’s second novel (the first published in the U.S.,) it is more complex than a simple story of black and white disharmony. Its backdrop of South African apartheid and the suffering of previous generations is reflected in the women’s relationship. The past is always there, but there is hope for the future.