Sunday, December 09, 2012

The Opposite House

The Opposite House / Helen Oyeyemi
Toronto: Penguin Canada, c2007.
256 p.

I've had this book on my shelves for quite a long time -- when I picked it up to read recently, I rediscovered the fact that Oyeyemi had signed it for me at a Book Expo! That's about 5 years of waiting to read it, then ;)

I've read some of Oyeyemi's other books and have enjoyed them. I like her unique style and the oblique way in which she approaches storytelling. This book promised much of the same -- it has two strands which interweave, strands that the reader must carefully untangle to make sense of the tale.

It begins in the somewherehouse, a place in which the Yoruba gods exist now that their believers have spread throughout the world, and the gods have had to adapt to local custom. The somewherehouse has two doors, one which leads to London and one to Lagos. The interactions between gods, who come and go, and the strange silent family upstairs, add an eerie element to the story. Meanwhile in London, Maja, a 25 yr old singer who is now pregnant, is finding that she is retreating from the reality of her world into her imagination. She is longing for a Cuba that she left when she was seven years old, a Cuba that her mother recalls with a devotion to Santeria and her father with logic and disappointed revolutionary hopes. Maja is seeking her Self; speaking Spanish and English, hailing from Cuba and living in England, can she find any meaning in or connection to her Ewe, Igbo, or Akum roots? Her boyfriend Aaron is a white man who grew up in Ghana. Both of them are struggling with identity, just as the Yoruba gods are in their somewherehouse. Maja says early on in the novel, regarding her move to England,

"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 ... I arrived here just before that age." 

But the book questions that ability -- how are we part of both where we came from and where we land, without being set adrift? Oyeyemi is an excellent writer who never draws absolute conclusions that she expects the reader to see and understand. She sets out a premise and populates it with a dream-like setting and mysterious, opaque characters, who often don't even understand themselves. Things happen but the conclusions must come from the reader. Sometimes it is unsettling to read her work, in the sense that it upturns your observations and you must rethink your perceptions. Sometimes you just have to go with the story, despite how little you can make sense of it at first. I enjoy that sense of confusion in her work, as the narrative sticks with me and slowly sorts itself upon reflection, as if my brain is busily putting together a jigsaw puzzle after I've closed the book. With many of her books, I feel that a second reading, after a gap from the first encounter, would add to the picture I created the first go round and hopefully connect some of the missing bits in my mind.

Her books are challenging, but so worth the effort. This story explores the shifting nature of gods and beliefs in a changing world, a world in which cultures move and beliefs intersect. How does belief shape reality -- or, oppositely, how does reality shape belief? The characters, both in the somewherehouse and in London, are all complex and as always with Oyeyemi, feel as if they have just dropped in to this story from their fully lived lives elsewhere. To me, there is always a teeming backstory that we never see but which fills each character. This was a great read, slightly unsettling, slightly odd, and fully engaging. I found the situation fascinating; a black Cuban family who has emigrated to London, Maja's best friend Amy Eleni (of Cypriot descent) who is a startling character in her own right, longings for lost countries -- all told in a dreamlike, poetic flow of words. Very thought provoking, and one I've been pondering since I finished it.

Other takes:

Wonderful summary in the Guardian back when this was first published in 2007

Lisa at Bluestalking says that "It's the lushness of the language, though, that's the dominating factor in what makes this such a wonderful book."

Marilyn at Me, You & Books states "I heartily recommend this book to anyone who likes international experiences, experimental writing and magical realism."


  1. As you've signed up for the *Tea & Books Reading Challenge* on my blog, here's just a little reminder that you've still got three more weeks to finish the challenge!
    Latest Update Post (plus Giveaway, yay) can be found here:

  2. Challenging is the perfect word to describe her books! I'm still wondering what the heck happened in White is for Witching.

  3. Softdrink - ha! True, though... I liked the weirdness of White is for Witching but would really have to go through it again to really get a sense of the story arc... still, I like being a bit discombobulated by her fabulous writing :)


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