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The Boy Next Door by Irene Sabatini

book cover of The Boy Next Door

I ended up quite enjoying this, even though it does have a major flaw, which is that it takes way too long to get to the hook. For the first 40% of the novel, I was like, "Well, I guess I'm getting a feel for what it was like to live in 1980s Zimbabwe, but this isn't really much of a story." Then there was a major twist and things got so much more interesting.

The main character is Lindiwe, a young Coloured woman in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. The book follows her for about 15 years of her life, starting from when she's a 14yo girl intrigued by the older white boy next door (although with flashbacks to earlier times than that). The narration is rather unconventional, mostly dialogue-based, with Lindiwe not really sharing most of her inner thoughts with the reader and even failing to mention important plot developments until way later, making her something of an unreliable narrator.

The book is partly a view of what life was like and how it changed in Zimbabwe between the 1980s and late 1990s, as corruption and militarism saw it degenerate into chaos. It's also partly a book about domesticity, about a mismatched and not particularly happy couple who keep on making things work regardless. That latter part was not something I'd really expected (although in retrospect the title kind of gives it away), but I found it stimulating reading. The characters' different racial backgrounds and levels of education cause soooo many arguments and also, I feel like that would have been conflict enough without Ian also having to have an alcohol problem and a “being a flighty male who doesn't really respect his female partner's opinions” problem, because it made him rather unlikeable. There are also some other subplots and side characters with their own things going on.

In general, I liked the core story of Lindiwe trying to keep her family going in difficult circumstances, framed by all the turmoil in Zimbabwe. However, I didn't think most of the characters were particularly deep (with the exception of Lindiwe and probably her partner themselves), and it really was an issue that it took so long for an interesting story to come together. Regardless, this is still the best Zimbabwean book I have read (out of three). If you're interested in the country this is worth a read.

★★★

a cartoony avatar of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.