Set in post-colonial Zimbabwe, The Boy Next Door is the story of Lindiwe Bishop, a quiet 14-year-old girl of mixed race. She and her family live in what was previously an all-white suburb. Ian McKenzie, the boy in the title, is a few years older, of British (white) descent, and when the story opens, has just been arrested for setting his stepmother on fire. Despite, or perhaps because of, parental warnings, Lindiwe is fascinated by Ian. When he is cleared of charges and returns home after serving a reduced sentence, the two strike up a clandestine friendship.
As we follow Lindiwe and Ian over more than a decade, the focus is on their relationship, set against a backdrop of a country crumbling under Robert Mugabe’s dictatorial rule. Ian and Lindiwe’s relationship is complex, compounded by the racial tensions prevalent across the country and an intricate set of relationships between and within their families. As the two mature, they become more aware of family secrets that have shaped their lives. Ian struggled with demons resulting from his unstable home life. And I felt Lindiwe’s pain every time she discovered a truth about her past, and every time she returned to her home town of Bulawayo, only to find it even worse off than the last time. They made an unlikely couple; most of the time their relationship seemed unhealthy, and yet they would never have survived the political unrest without one another.
So much of the story revolves around these secrets, it is difficult to write a review that does justice to this book. Irene Sabatini reveals the truth in tiny fragments, like a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. I’m not even sure I caught everything, and even after rereading a specific section several times, there’s still one aspect that remains unexplained. This is exactly the effect I think Sabatini was trying to create, and it makes for a gripping and emotional read. This is an impressive debut novel, and I hope to see more from Irene Sabatini.