Feb 22, 2013

The Boy Next Door by Irene Sabatini – A Review



September 2009, Fiction
Little, Brown and Company, 416 pages
 ISBN-13: 978-0316049931, Available on Amazon*
(*I read the digital version, though I also own the hardcover)

The Boy Next Door is set in Zimbabwe from the early 1980s through the late 1990s. In it the author focuses on racial conflicts which underlay the history of the nation – from colonial rule when the country was known as Rhodesia to post-independence times. At the centre of it all is the story of Lindiwe Bishop and Ian McKenzie, she is of mixed race (coloured) and he is white. The story of their lives unfolds along with that of the young nation, and we witness along with them mass migration of white people escaping what they see as a decline in their fortunes, the frustration of liberation fighters trying to reintegrate in society and later the economic decline that sends the country into a tailspin.

The narrative begins in the early 1980s. Lindiwe and her family live in what was previously an all-white neighbourhood. She’s a quiet 14-year-old when the area is rocked by the arrest of the boy next door; he’s accused of setting his step-mother on fire. He is later cleared of the charges and it is then that he and Lindiwe spark a friendship; despite all parental warnings against this, on her part. They are an unlikely pair, as he’s a few years older and little world weary. This bond endures of the years.

The second part of the book is set in the early 1990s, six to seven years after the close of the first. Lindiwe is a young woman at university and Ian is working as a photojournalist in South Africa. They have maintained contact through the preceding years, and when they meet again in person the draw between them exists still. An unexpected secret Lindiwe has been keeping changes the course of both their lives. Sorry no spoilers. J

In the third half of the book is where the story really takes off for me. Ian and Lindiwe are together as a couple, and have to confront various situations as adults. The relationship remains tenuous and they are thoroughly tested by circumstances of their own making and others not. They are each changing, as is the country around them and the question remains will they make it? 

As I finished reading this book, I was left thoroughly dissatisfied. I just couldn’t connect with either of the main characters. I found myself liking and disliking them at various turns, and ultimately found little to redeem them. Yes, they are human and have flaws like we all do but the author couldn’t sell me on reasons to care about either of them and their story. They changed over time but still seemed stuck by circumstances of the past and present – family disharmony, the racial undertones, etc.

Furthermore, there are family secrets that each uncover throughout the book. It was agonising for me because each secret seemed to ask more questions than it answered, and it just didn’t come together. I mentally threw up my hands in the air and asked “why should I care?”

What I did enjoy about the book was Sabitini’s vivid descriptions of Zimbabwe’s main cities, Bulawayo and Harare. She breathes life into them and they almost become secondary characters in the book. As the fortunes of Zimbabwe change as to do those of her people and the beautiful cities in which they reside.

Unfortunately as a complete package this was not the book for me. And I would have a hard time recommending it.  

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