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The Opposite House    by Helen Oyeyemi order for
Opposite House
by Helen Oyeyemi
Order:  USA  Can
Anchor, 2008 (2007)
Hardcover, Softcover, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Helen Oyeyemi's unusual title comes from a poem by Emily Dickinson: 'There's been a Death, in the Opposite House, / As lately as Today - / I know it, by the numb look / Such Houses have - alway'. Oyeyemi offers readers a complex and challenging narrative by Maja Carmen Carrera. A black Cuban woman and jazz singer in her twenties, Maja orbits her relationships with two academic parents - Mami (Chabella), a highly-religious Santerian (an African-Cuban religion) and atheist professor Papi - as well as younger brother Tomás. The family fled Castro's Cuba for London when Maja was seven.

Though adjusted to life in London, Maja begins a mind-journey about the country left behind. Regarding the move, Maja muses: '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.' Maja moves in with boyfriend Aaron and becomes pregnant (having yearned for a child since she was five years old) while her thoughts turn to a scarcely-remembered Cuba.

Aaron, a white Ghanaian, struggles to fathom what is happening to Maja, as advancing pregnancy pulls her away from everyday life towards a world that is more imagination than memory. Maja's best friend - gay, white Amy Eleni - provides sharp insights of 'coming into her own', while dealing with her own sexuality. Maja ponders, '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.'

Interwoven with Maja's narrative is the alternating story of Yemaya Saramagua ('Aya') - a Santerian goddess/emissary residing in the somewherehouse, home of other auspicious beings. In the mysterious house, there are two magic doors: one opens onto London, the other onto Lagos (rarely referred to in the story). Aya leaves the somewherehouse in search of her parents, and meets children who grow from seeds, while befriending a suicidal, many-faced young girl named Amy.

Helen Oyeyemi is the author of The Icarus Girl. Her works are lyrical and her gift for language and emotional intelligence strongly draw the reader into her characters' souls, as in 'The pain on her cheeks, her forehead, her hands, stands out blackly, as if her veins are delicately weeping poison and her skin is a cloth placed over it to soak up the damage.' Or consider the opulent language in such passages as: '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-colored 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 not a story with a beginning, middle, and ending - it is left with no closure. Exasperated at times that I wasn't catching on, I finally found myself going with the flow, allowing the beauty of Oyeyemi's words to penetrate. I found the novel, albeit difficult to read, yet hard to put aside, with emotional moments which adhere to the mind, beckoning the reader to return again and again. One can't help but contemplate: What precisely is the relationship between Maja and Yemaya? Personally, I couldn't let go of the concept that the two women are one and the same.

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