[5 November 2009]
The Boy Next Door is an exceedingly pleasant book. It is so accommodating, so good-natured, so eager to please—winsome, really—that, although your interest may wax and wane, you will read all 416 pages to the very end. Irene Sabatini’s prose is straight-forward and uncomplicated; her sentences have an airiness that lifts them right off the page. What you read is what you get. And what you get is two endearing love stories.
One love story is between a white boy and a mixed race girl, and spans more than a decade of tumultuous, post-independence times in the southern African country of Zimbabwe. The second love story is the author’s affection for her home country. Sabatini, who grew up in Zimbabwe, now lives abroad. But the memories of her childhood are the scenes and characters that animate The Boy Next Door.
The plot emanates from a singular event—the house next to the home of young Lindiwe Bishop burns to the ground, killing a woman inside. The woman’s 17-year-old stepson is arrested for the crime. Lindiwe becomes strangely fascinated by this brash “Rhodesian” boy, Ian. After he is released from prison, the two tentatively begin a clandestine friendship that they know neither community norms nor family members would approve of. Whether or not Ian actually set the fire is a mystery that runs through the book, and there are times that Lindiwe is obsessed with learning the truth. By the book’s end, however, so much has happened between the pair that whether or not Ian lit the match seems to make little difference.
Lindiwe and Ian’s relationship goes through its break-ups, fights, family pressures, and existential moments of “where are we going” self-reflection, as most love stories do. But what makes their relationship interesting is how its vicissitudes expose some of the real social issues facing Zimbabwe after its birth as a nation in 1980—relations between white, black and “colored” Zimbabweans, the legacy of the country’s civil war, and the despicable, culturally-accepted ways that men can treat women of all races.
Throughout, Sabatini’s voice comes out loud and clear, especially when the setting is Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city and her hometown. As Lindiwe explains how she and her father used go to “Old Man Patel to get his new trousers adjusted”, she reminisces about the “brown paper bag sticky and oily with Indian koeksisters” (sweet fried dough) that she would get to eat. You have no doubt that Sabatini has eaten those very same koeksisters.
Even as the characters in the story face troubling times, like when Lindiwe accompanies her best friend into town for a backdoor abortion, Sabatini describes the people and the places that inhabit her book with care. She takes time with each place, with each person, to make them alive for you, because they have been alive for her. Boy exudes an authenticity and warmth that can’t come from an author’s imagination alone, but from a lifetime of listening and observing.