'The Opposite House' by Helen Oyeyemi

Posted: July 3, 2007 in Book Reviews

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From The Opposite House by Helen Oyeyemi:

“I need my Cuba memory back, or something just as small, just as rich, to replace it, more food for my son, for me. I think I will pretend that I am not from Cuba and neither is my son. The boy and I started a race from that other country, and I got here first.”

The Opposite House reads like a book written by the love child of Virginia Woolf and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, assuming either had been from Cuba. It’s a story filled with yearning for a native country, or for the memory of a native country, despite the fact the main character, Maja Carmen Carrera, only has one memory left of her childhood. Twenty years later she’s pregnant with her boyfriend Aaron’s baby, and living in London. Still, that one memory goes along with her, haunting her dreams.

The book is shot through with so much internal conflict the pain is often palpable, and sometimes raw. An African Cuban, she doesn’t feel she fully belongs in either the world with her memory of Cuba or in an England that doesn’t completely feel like home, either:

“I was seven years old when we came here. I’ve come to think that there’s an age beyond which it is impossible to lift a child from the pervading marinade of an original country, pat them down with a paper napkin and then deep-fry them in another country, another language like hot oil scalding the first language away. I arrived here just before that age.”

It’s the lushness of the language, though, that’s the dominating factor in what makes this such a wonderful book. The sensuous language is woven throughout:

“The day was hot but gentle; beneath its healing steam lay granite, decrepit wood, rocks gloved in blanched sand. The harbour water caught sunlight in layered hoops of petrol-coloured dirt and tried to keep its clarity secret, but the divers told. Small, earth-brown boys kept bobbing up, their backbones hacking out of their skin, hair plastered to their heads, coin pouches around their waists rattling as they added new handfuls of slick bronze to their store.”

The Opposite House is told in alternating narrative, flashing between Maja’s story and the fantastical, alternate reality of a girl named Yemaya, whose connection with Maja really is never completely spelled out. Rather, it’s a more spiritual connection, a reaching across the dimensions between two souls who don’t feel fully at home, or at ease, and whose searchings lead them almost to each other, in a sort of alternate reality that lies between them. It has a lot to do with feeling alien, never able to feel you fit into a culture, but not able to go back, either, because that door has closed. It’s this door, between the two worlds, that seems to be Oyeyemi’s target, this ethereal, intangible “door” that won’t open for either Maja or Yemaya, and it’s this reality that frustrates the both of them. Yet, neither can forget the past, and they carry the weight of it with them while trying to make their lives elsewhere. They are a part of several cultures but don’t completely belong to any one:

“I strip to my underwear and I study myself in the mirror; it is a bronzed sorrel woman with a net of curly hair who looks back, and she does not look Jamaican or Ghanian or Kenyan or Sudanese – the only firm thing that is sure is that she is black. Mami says only Cubans look like Cubans; put three Cuban girls together – white, black, Latina, whatever – and you just see it.”

Ultimately, both women are strong. They are survivors. Despite their feelings of disconnection, they carve out lives for themselves in an adopted land that at the least is rich in opportunity and the potential for making a good life. And it’s through the beauty of Oyeyemi’s prose that the reader is able to explore not just the complexity of Maja and Yemaya, but also the tenuous link that binds them to each other. And the result is a gorgeous book, rich in luxuriant prose that’s a treat to read.

“She fled to be born. She fled to be native, to start somewhere, to grow in that same somewhere, to die there. She didn’t know just then that she wasn’t quickening toward home, but trusting home to find her.”

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From Random House website:

HELEN OYEYEMI was born in Nigeria in 1984, and has lived in London from the age of four. She completed The Icarus Girl just before her nineteenth birthday, while studying for her A-levels. She is now a student of Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge University. She has written two plays, Juniper’s Whitening and Victimese; The Icarus Girl is her first novel, and she is at work on her second.

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