THE BOY NEXT DOOR by Irene Sabatini

Book Quote:

“There goes Mandela looking bemused in his trademark paisley-print outfit. Twenty years of incarceration and look, look where I find myself, his look seems to say, what I’ve been missing all those years cooped up in Robben Island.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (OCT 11, 2009)

We meet the protagonist of The Boy Next Door, Lindiwe Bishop, when she is just fourteen. The white woman next door, Mrs. McKenzie, mother of Ian, has just burned to death. Set afire. It is Africa in the 1980s and Robert–Bob–Mugabe has just taken his oath, “… his hand firmly on the Bible…and so help me God…Zimbabwe was born.” This is the stage set, at the intersection of culture and identity (personal and national), in the opening pages of this delicate and beautiful debut novel.

That night Lindiwe lies in bed. “I wanted to find out low long you would have to burn to become just bone. I wanted to know if Mrs. McKenzie had burnt all night while I had been sleeping. I tried to think what I had been dreaming of. I wanted to know if something had happened in my dreams that should have made me wake up, draw back the curtain and see…what? Would I have seen her? Heard her? Smelt her? I tried to remember when was the last time I had seen her live, but I couldn’t see it, that exact moment.”

Within days the son, Ian, is carted off to prison. It is reported that he confessed to the murder. A year later he is released on lack of evidence. He returns home and Lindiwe quietly observes him from across her fence. “He came home today. We all saw him. He stood just looking up at the house. Mummy said he looked like a criminal. I didn’t think she was right about that.” Sabatini builds from this premise a striking relationship between the young Zimbabwean Lindiwe and the young white neighbor.

Lindiwe grows accustom to his presence and soon he is giving her an occasional lift to school, though out of her parent’s view. A friendship blossoms. Through the course of this novel we follow the interweaving path of Lindiwe and Ian for almost twenty years. Along the way we monitor the birth of Zimbabwe and watch it collapse and creep to the edge of civil war. We observe the destruction of families, specifically Lindiwe’s, torn apart by infidelity and political intrigue. Was her father a Rhodesian army officer and did he partake in atrocities? We watch as white racism is reversed and then surpassed in a nascent reign of terror that includes fleeing whites and politically opposing blacks. Mugabe, a distant, though fascinating character throughout the novel, strengthens his grip on the country and eventually includes Ian in his grasp. AIDs is evidenced and begins its horrific march across the continent. Yet, through it all, we trust the voice of Lindiwe, so masterfully does Sabatini draw her. We trust her observations. Her voice rings true. The reader is carried along in this narration in a deceptively fluid and deft manner. It is hard to believe this is Sabatini’s first novel, she is so adept.

Coming of age tales, novels of Africa, stories of AIDS and political malfeasance, all themes here, are well worn paths. Yet cliches are avoided in the novel. There is so much hope and beauty seen through the eyes of Lindiwe that we are never burdened by the complexities and horror of her life in a country spinning out of control. Though families and lives are destroyed, we are never set adrift in despair. Her voice is unburdened, her story one of control and aspiration.

Lindiwe and Ian survive the years. He becomes a photojournalist and gains international repute with his images from South Africa. She works for NGOs, and goes to University. While all about them crumbles they carry on. When they meet again after years of separation, they pick up effortlessly where they left off, like the two kids they once where. Ian spots her from a car and pulls over.

“If you want, I can drive,” she offers.
“You can drive?” Ian asks.
“Yes, don’t look so shocked.”
“I have to get used to you like this.”
“Like what?”

Lindiwe has a secret and when Ian discovers it, their lives become inextricably fused. Their mixed-race relationship is subject to forces that are designed to drive them apart, even make them enemies. Yet, through trial and challenge, one after the other, they return, one to the other. Eventually they escape and set upon a new world and a new life, perhaps to be free and unburdened.

There is so much that is horrible about the world in which these two exist. Too often, modern fiction of this type bludgeons us with scenes of aching despair. But not here. Yes, their horrible world is portrayed. And yes there are scenes that we fear will creep up on us and pounce, yet the narration stops short of that. We are allowed to breath in the grace of these lives laced with hope and commitment. I look forward to Sabatini’s long career. She has much to say, and she says it so wonderfully.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 16 readers
PUBLISHER: Little, Brown and Company; 1 edition (September 8, 2009)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Irene Sabatini
EXTRAS: Reading Guide
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More African novels:

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October 11, 2009 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Africa, Class - Race - Gender, Coming-of-Age, Debut Novel, Facing History, Orange Prize, Reading Guide, World Lit

One Response

  1. Irene Sabatini - October 13, 2009

    It is a wonderful gift to have Lindiwe and Ian’s story reviewed in such an in-depth and sensitive way. As the (debut) author I’m coming to grips with letting go of these characters; I still hear their voices so vividly, and wish them well now that they are out in the world! Thank you for giving your readers a real sense of who they are and the journey that they take in the book.

    Irene Sabatini.

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