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by Irene Sabatini
Reviewed by Caitlin Fehir

Lindiwe Bishop is a "colored" Zimbabwean, an honour student, a shy girl who thinks significantly more than she speaks.

Ian McKenzie is a "Rhodie," a dropout, a person whose vulgar speech causes heads to turn, a boy accused of setting fire to his stepmother.

Friendship between such opposite people is improbable, even discouraged. Yet somehow, these two characters are drawn to each other, and form a bond solid enough to thrive through inconceivable turmoil.

The Boy Next Door, Irene Sabatini's debut novel, begins with Ian's supposed act of violence. Lindiwe, then fourteen, feels guilt over the fact that her entire family slept peacefully as next door Mrs. McKenzie burned to death. Ian begins to hold a mythical presence in Lindiwe's mind, and after he is released from prison nearly two years later, her fascination increases. When Ian offers her a ride home after netball practice, Lindiwe shyly begins to form a friendship with an accused murderer. She is inexplicably drawn to Ian, and he to her. As political tensions mount in Zimbabwe, Lindiwe and Ian's connection deepens. Always looming is the question of Mrs. McKenzie's death, and the secrets of that horrible night.

Lindiwe has secrets of her own. Her parents are unhappily married, and one of her relatives has a dangerous past. A minority at school, Lindiwe has only one friend – Bridgette, a girl whose false sense of maturity brings about yet another secret. As her world crumbles around her, Lindiwe begs Ian to help her leave Bulawayo, if only for a few days. It is on this trip that Ian and Lindiwe's relationship takes an irreversible turn. They are separated, and six years later their story begins again.

The attraction between Lindiwe and Ian — the force that repeatedly brings their lives together — is the star of this novel. Sabatini's two characters feel complete when they are together. Though The Boy Next Door spans two decades, the reader experiences only the times when Ian's path crosses Lindiwe's. Their separate histories are seldom discussed, as though their personalities are formed solely by the moments they spend together. Lindiwe is not herself without Ian, and he is lost without her influence.

Their relationship follows a tumultuous path, echoed by upheaval in Zimbabwe and the troublesome lives of the other people. Tragedy strikes every one of Sabatini's characters, producing a novel that resides on the edge of despair. Yet miraculously, hope, more than any other emotion, characterizes The Boy Next Door. In the bleak world of Bulawayo, Lindiwe and Ian endure. The reader knows instinctually that their futures will be as entwined as their pasts, that their bond will survive the next obstacle.

Much like the connection between her two protagonists, Sabatini's novel is formed on contrast. It is equally a frank cry against Zimbabwean politics as it is an intimate look at a loving relationship. These two themes, like Lindiwe and Ian themselves, bring meaning to each other in a deeply emotional way, and it is only at their intersection that they are truly complete.