I know what draws me to Helen Oyeyemi‘s writing but it has been a labor of love to get through my first attempts at her novels. While “White is for Witching” was a haunting fairy tale that would unexpectedly and abruptly transverse between reality and fantasy, “The Opposite House” really threw me for a loop.
The Opposite House, Oyeyemi’s second novel, is a slow moving identity struggle for a young woman lost between two worlds: her current reality of London and her childhood memories of Cuba. Not only is her struggle a cultural one, it is a matter of race as well. Her boyfriend is a white Ghanaian who she suspects to be more authentically “black” than she, her parents are educated black Cubans who fled the revolution, and her brother, born in London and affectionately referred to as “the London baby,” to much, I suspect, of Maja’s annoyance paints an accurate picture of what it means to be not of one’s country of origin. The themes of race, identity, culture and the fact that she’s on the verge of bringing another life into the world terrifies her and rightly so. I loved the internal struggle of Maja and Aaron’s, her boyfriend, lack of understanding. While her mother still holds onto the ways and rituals of the “old world,” her father and brother only know and look forward to their new and only experiences of London.
However, in between the story of Maja and her internal struggles, was where I began to get frustrated. Intercutting the slow moving narrative is an Oyeyemi original folktale full of powerful imagery but a frustratingly confusing story line. While I understood what it meant, an abandoned woman, Aya, stuck in a, “somewherehouse” where one door opens to London and the other Cuba, the complex actions and names threw me and distracted me from Maja’s journey.
I recommend this book, but only if you come equipped with the the patience to handle her narrative style.