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Helen Oyeyemi

The Opposite House
by Helen Oyeyemi

Reviewed by Olutola Ositelu

Hardback, 216 x 135mm, 272pp
Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 0747588848
ISBN-13: 9780747588849

 The Opposite House   
The prodigiously talented Helen Oyeyemi follows up her ingeniously haunting debut, ‘The Icarus girl’ with a novel that ostensibly seeks to further explore the themes of race and identity, which were touched on in her first book.

The first thing I noticed about the Opposite House is how much the actual content of the book differs from the in depth explanation on the sleeve notes. We are told that it is about the young and newly pregnant Maja’s quest to reconcile herself to her African/Cuban heritage whilst living in the UK when she has very little memory of the country she left behind. At the same time, Oyeyemi continues to indulge her fascination with the spirit world in the guise of the goddess Yemaya Saramagua who apparently is bewildered by her fellow gods defecting to the physical world posing as ‘saints’. I can only suspect that what is described here is to give the reader an overview of what Ms Oyeyemi intended to convey but that might not be so clear initially. By the end of the novel I could not help thinking how much of the sleeve notes did not reflect the end product and in a way I wish they had as it would have probably made for a better, more defined read.

Ms Oyeyemi has an uncanny, almost seductive way of engaging the reader- even if one is not all that convinced by what she’s trying to say. It is a sheer delight to see how malleable and flexible language becomes in the young writers hands. An unabashed die-hard fan of Emily Dickinson (the title of the novel taken from a line in the poem ‘There’s been a death in the opposite house’) Oyeyemi’s writing style, particularly in this second book embraces a more poetic form that in many ways is a saving grace. I might not have always been able to understand what she was trying to say but boy, was it delicious to read. Another aspect in which Ms Oyeyemi excels is in her fearlessness in dealing with the idea of mental instability, presenting it in an everyday – almost mundane way. The effect of this is not bathos or to trivialise those dealing with such issues – instead quite the opposite she makes the reader aware of how easy it could be to cross the sanity line, how things that should raise alarm can become quite routine and ordinary to the sufferer. Oyeyemi somehow manages to bring the reader along this precarious journey from sanity to insanity with a great sense of empathy. What’s more she has seemed determined in her first two books to draw attention to the relationship between psychological problems and dalliance with aspects of the supernatural. Almost as to serve as a cautionary tale that mere mortals cannot have too much exposure to the spirit world without adverse consequences.

The issue of emotional and mental fragility is dealt superbly through Maja’s constant reference to her ‘hysteric’; a sort of alter ego that embodies all her deep-seated neurosis and can lead Maja down any path from paranoia to attempting suicide. This is somehow tied up with her loving but volatile relationship with her mother, the idiosyncratic Chabella. This is another theme continued from her first book, the idea of an imposing, almost untouchable matriarchal figure one that is at once, admired, loved, feared and loathed by her daughter. When trying to describe her ‘hysteric’ Maja opines

‘She is not part of me, she is part of my store. In times of need she converts into my emergency image of Chabella, a poorly done portrait that I can show people when I need to ask ‘Have you seen this woman?’ ’

Maja eschews her mother’s hybrid animistic/Roman Catholic faith as she offers paper sacrifices to her gods, looking upon Chabella’s efforts as misguided attempts to hold onto an idea of Cuba that may or may not have existed.

Oyeyemi also handles the relationship between Maja and her Ewe-Speaking Ghana-born and raised English boyfriend, Aaron with class and delicacy – simply beautiful. I was particularly happy Ms Oyeyemi chose to make Aaron an honorary member of the Ewe ethnic group of Ghana since my maternal grandfather hails from that part of the country.
With a healthy dose of sympathy, she helps the reader gets a good understanding of the challenges facing the young couple, baby on the way, Aaron’s demanding job as a doctor and the resulting strain on the relationship it sometimes causes, his attempts to understand Maja in all her complexity and the patience in which he does as well as a clever spin on the issue of being in a mixed race relationship. Aaron the white man growing up in a ‘black’ country and well conversant with the culture and language and Maja, born to parents of African descent in a country perceived by many as ‘white’ but unable to fully come to grips with an African culture her European boyfriend can nearly take for granted.

However I came unstuck when trying to understand what Ms Oyeyemi was trying to say in the novel. Maybe she was not trying to say anything at all but throughout the book there is a sense she wants to make a point – or several points- that in my mind were not truly developed. There are a few non-committal attempts to tackle definitions of nationality and patriotism but Oyeyemi seems to cancel her points out. Her irascible best friend Amy Eleni insists on being called by her full name in honour of her Cypriot roots but then berates a Nigerian school colleague for claiming to love the country even though she doesn’t live there… ‘People need to stop using love of some country that they don’t live in as an excuse for their inability to shut up about it…’ she scrawls on Maja’s hand during an assembly. I found this to be one of the most obtuse statements made in the book – since when did full time residency become the main factor with which to gauge ones regard for their country of origin? Tell that to thousands who flee war-ravaged countries they love when the only other alternative is almost certain rape and death at the hands of a member of one faction or another.

The amorphous nature of the message Oyeyemi seeks to champion would not be a problem if it were just a great character-driven novel where any point made was a by-product of the enjoyment gained from the colourful, fully developed characters a la Zadie Smith. There is an element of the Zeitgeisty writing-style in ‘The Opposite House’ that propelled books such as ‘White Teeth’ to fame. Where Oyeyemi falls down is that some of the characters are somewhat frayed at the edges, not thought out properly, lacking ‘motivation’ as the famous acting turn of phrase goes. For instance Amy Eleni seems unnecessarily bitter and difficult to like. Apart from references to a suspiciously thin mother and a vague sense of regret that her attraction to the same sex precludes her from having children of her own, there seems to be no real reason for this. Amy Eleni’s relationship with Maja seems to be based on one girl of impressionable character giving deference to a stronger, more intimidating personality. One can only assume they are friends because of Amy Eleni’s refusal to go away which I suppose can be interpreted as loyalty – or perhaps not having any other friends because she’s a bridge-burning cocky piece of work.

There’s also the loveable but elusive ‘London-Baby’ Tomas, Maja’s younger brother. I can’t work out if he’s enigmatic because Oyeyemi purposed him to be or that his character is not fully formed. There are a few references made to Tomas not being able to get used to his birth-name and responding to absolutely any name called out- even by total strangers. Towards the end of the book Maja reflects

‘If you put a name to this boy he’ll die. Chabella and Papi mustn’t do it any more- it bothers him’.

Once again it is unclear what the relevance of this is or what the author wants to get across here. I can only guess Ms Oyeyemi is comparing Tomas difficulty in getting accustomed to a permanent name to the transient nature of identity, culture and how they are defined – but I fear I am clutching at straws here.

I won’t even go into why I could not make head or tail of the significance of the goddess Yemaya and the ‘somewherehouse’, straddling Lagos and London, which she inhabits. What promised to be resolved and tied in with the rest of the story at the end of the book could just as well have existed independently of the novel. Better still, it did not appear to serve any real purpose in the book, breaking up the most enjoyable parts of the story, and should have been left out altogether.

Nevertheless Oyeyemi is undoubtedly a serious talent. As soon as I noticed one or more of the deficiencies in this follow up to her flawless debut I was distracted once again by how enjoyable it is just to read what she writes – point made or no point made. It’s just that ‘The Opposite House’ would have been a more complete novel without these shortcomings. But anyone who can beautify language the way Ms Oyeyemi does could and should have any multitude of literary sins overlooked.


Olutola Ositelu

Tola Ositelu was born
in South-East London, 1981 to Nigerian and Ghanaian parents. She studied Law at University and is currently a trainee solicitor in London.
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