At first glance, Irene Sabatini's 'The Boy Next Door' sounds like a typical coming of age novel, albeit one set against the background of political turmoil in Zimbabwe in the period immediately following independence. The story is narrated by the central female character, Lindiwe Bishop, who begins the story as a 14 year old girl living in a suburb of Bulawayo and the early part of the book chronicles her efforts to fit in at school and develop friendships in a society divided by race and social standing. However, as the story develops into a story of inter-racial love in a country torn apart by political tensions, it becomes much more powerful than that. This novel won the 'Orange Award for New Writers' in 2010.
The narrator of the story, Lindiwe Bishop, is a young woman growing up in a formerly all-white neighbourhood of Bulawayo. She has interesting relationships with her parents as she clearly adores her father but has a very difficult relationship with her social-climbing mother who is insistent that the family be perceived as 'coloured' rather than 'black'. This is because Lindiwe's paternal grandfather was a white farmer who agreed to have his name on her father's birth certificate and paid for his education, and Lindiwe's mother feels that this elevates them to a higher social strata than their black African neighbours which is why they live in this neighbourhood (despite the fact that there is only one white family remaining at the start of the story) and why Lindiwe is sent to a formerly all-white school where they believe she will receive a better education. The one white Rhodesian family remaining in their street is the McKenzie family and it is Ian McKenzie who is the 'boy next door' in the title of the novel.
At the beginning of the novel, Ian McKenzie is arrested for allegedly setting light to his stepmother. 18 months later, the charges are dropped and he returns home where he strikes up a secret friendship with Lindiwe. Initially, this friendship seems very innocent - he gives her a lift to netball games, they share a coke at the museum - but it soon develops into something more than that, a relationship which continues throughout the book and mirrors the increasing turbulence of the society in which they live. It is difficult to talk more about the relationship between the two main characters without revealing too much about the story itself, but it is a love story which draws you in and really makes you care what happens to them.
In addition to the love story between Lindiwe and Ian, the other overwhelming theme of the book is the story of Zimbabwe itself and the decline of the country following independence. It is not a subject that I knew that much about but the way that the author portrays the slide into political violence and chaos is very poignant. At one point towards the end of the novel, Lindiwe returns to her home town and is shocked at the decline with the closed down stores, the queues of people waiting for a consignment of sugar which has been delivered, the desolation of a once-beautiful park and I feel that this reflects the writer's experiences of the changes in her home country. Other issues that we associate with Zimbabwe such as the leadership of Robert Mugabe and the AIDs epidemic are also dealt with within this novel.
Overall, I really loved this book. It was a powerful love story which drew me in and really made me care about what happened to the main characters, whilst the real-life elements of the story about the decline of Zimbabwe provided another level of interest without detracting from the central story. In some ways, it does feel like the relationship between Lindiwe and Ian was used as a tool to tell a story which would have been a lot more shocking without that love story to hold it together - on their own, some of the events which take place within the story may have been too harrowing to read, but the story holds it all together and allows you to see it through the eyes of the protagonists. The only thing I struggled with was understanding some of the language used as Ian talks in a Rhodesian dialect with words that were unfamiliar to me, but the more the story progressed and the more I lost myself in the book, the less it mattered. This is a fantastic book and I would highly recommend it.
* Review also posted on Ciao as Brownie_Queen