The Opposite House

opposite

Author: Helen Oyeyemi

Finished on: 21 November 2016

Where did I get this book: A birthday present from my friend (given at a very fortuitous time just before a never-ending hungover train journey with multiple cancellations from hell).

This is the third of Oyeyemi’s books that I have read this year. Boy, Snow, Bird and then The Icarus Girl both absolutely blew me away. Safe to say I am a fan, and had high hopes indeed for The Opposite House.

This is her second novel, published two years after the brilliant debut The Icarus Girl. And it contains many of the same elements: Yoruba culture, and the supernatural, blended with more naturalistic portrayals of people going through difficult times.

Oyeyemi has definitely hit on a wonderfully rich vein of mythology to base her stories around. But the weaving of these old stories with the lives of her modern characters that felt so effortless in The Icarus Girl is more shoehorned, and barely integrated into the plot of the book, here. We have a largely stand-alone narrative strand centred around the goddess Yemaya Saramagua, who lives in a ‘somewherehouse’ with one door in London and the other in Lagos. It is a great concept, but it never really blends successfully with the main story of the book.

This main story concerns Maja, who comes from a black Cuban family that emigrated to London when she was seven, and her relationships with her family, her best friend, her white Ghanaian boyfriend Aaron, their unborn child, and the ‘hysteric’ she carries inside her. The pregnancy awakens feelings of longing in Maja for the Cuba she left behind as a child, and for much of the book she battles with these emotions to the point of almost losing her sanity. So far, so engaging.

But this poignant examination of preparations to bring a child into a world she is struggling to make sense of is interspersed with prosaic arguments between Maja and Aaron, primarily over a leak in their ceiling. Aaron seems to be a character we’re meant to sympathise with, as Maja becomes increasingly unpredictable and unbalanced. But reading the story, I found myself as fixated on the dripping ceiling as she is, and increasingly irritated when Aaron repeatedly dismisses the problem or forgets to call the bloody plumber. I’m sure there was some deep literary significance to the ceiling leak that passed me by, but it was all very frustrating. Your girlfriend is carrying your child and having a really tough time. The least you can do is sort out basic home repairs!

So, this book is harder going than her others I’ve read. And I realise this review sounds like a panning, which is unfair to be honest as there is a huge amount that is good here. Oyeyemi’s writing is still beautiful; poetic but simple:

Lucy, who started up the slang, was Ugandan; she had a pretty heart-shaped face and a rabidly intent method of marking her netball opponent.

And she is still stunningly good with characterisation and relationships, especially between women. A real highlight of this book is the wonderfully unconventional and unsentimental relationship between Maja and her only real friend, Amy Eleni.

So while it’s tempting to summarise with the words of that great literary critic Meatloaf (two out of three ain’t bad) the truth is that Oyeyemi has just set an impossibly high bar, and while this is a more challenging, more flawed book than either of the others, I do still thoroughly intend to read everything this lady ever writes.

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