I picked up this book looking for a novel about Zimbabwe, but it turned out to be a “modern relationships” type book--a story about how relationships are difficult and complicated, with a Zimbabwean backdrop. Which might not have been so bad, except that I never believed in the relationship and there’s precious little plot to capture the reader’s attention. The first chapter was promising, but the rest of the book failed to deliver.
The Boy Next Door chronicles the relationship between Lindiwe, the black narrator, and Ian, her white love interest, from the 1980s when the two are teenagers and neighbors, through the late 90s; most of the book focuses on their adulthood. It’s written in a minimalist style with lots of dialogue; although Lindiwe narrates the book in first person, she almost never tells us what she’s thinking or feeling, and sometimes doesn’t even tell us what she’s doing, leaving the readers to deduce it from dialogue as if we were reading a play.
Although I didn’t enjoy this book, it’s not all bad: the characters’ personalities are fairly well-defined, there’s an okay story about young people trying to be a family in there and I learned a bit about Zimbabwe. But that’s about all I can say for it.
My biggest problem is with Ian and Lindiwe’s relationship, which is the focus of the novel. Racial differences aside, these two people have nothing in common except for their child. Ian’s a high school dropout; Lindiwe graduates from college. Lindiwe’s interested in books and intelligent conversation and gets impatient with Ian’s beer-drinking ways; Ian’s a “bad boy” and finds every educated-sounding thing Lindiwe says either annoying or funny. They dislike each other’s friends. They communicate poorly. They have no common interests. I have absolutely no idea why these characters are attracted to one another aside from availability. Adding the interracial factor makes it even less likely. Not only are they living in a racially divided society, but while Lindiwe thinks about racial issues and is troubled by them, Ian gets upset and defensive whenever she brings up racism. The relationship is written as if it were meant to be convincing and sometimes even romantic despite their difficulties, but I remain entirely unconvinced and just kept waiting for them to break up.
Beyond that, while a revelation midway through makes the novel somewhat more interesting, the tension never picks up much and the book meanders, picking up subplots only to drop them and never mention them again. There are continuity errors and the beginning jumps back and forth between past and present tense until finally settling into present. Ian’s dialogue, which occupies a lot of space especially in the early part of the book, is full of slang and foreign (presumably Ndebele) words whose meanings are not always apparent from context. And there is no glossary.
Overall, I found this book rather tedious and unrewarding. It probably doesn’t help that I read it soon after finishing Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, an absolutely amazing book, but with little plot and a bad “romance” I can see why this one remains obscure despite winning the Orange Prize.