Review: The Opposite House, Helen Oyeyemi

When I do not expect to enjoy a book all that much, but I need to get it read so I can return it to the library, I leave it in my loo and read it in tiny increments when I am cleaning my teeth and contact lenses, or waiting for the hot water to heat up (my hot water acts like it’s ready to go and then turns from a gush to a trickle; you have to wait SO LONG to get it going properly.  Many lukewarm showers before I figured it out).  If the book turns out better than I expect, I promote it to my bedside table, and read it in larger increments at night before I go to sleep.  If it turns out better than that again, I put it in my large yellow handbag and carry it about with me, so I can read it wherever I go.

The Icarus Girl started life as a bedside table book, but I think it may have been, actually, a teeth-cleaning book.  I expected it would be the same with Oyeyemi’s second book, and I expected her third, about which I have heard great things, to be a bedside table book.  So Mardi Gras I took The Opposite House upstairs with me when I went to clean my teeth after I’d finished my coffee.   In fact it proved to be a handbag book; in fact I took it downstairs and read the whole thing that day.

The Opposite House follows two storylines: Maja, a black Cuban girl whose family fled to London when she was seven, has fallen pregnant with the child she has wanted since she was five years old, but she is struggling with depression and anxiety, what she calls her “personal hysteric”.  On the other side we have Aya, a goddess of Maja’s mother’s religion, who lives in “the somewherehouse” that gives into London and Lagos.

Helen Oyeyemi’s writing has improved practically out of recognition from The Icarus Girl.  Not that The Icarus Girl was poorly written – it wasn’t at all – but The Opposite House has some truly lovely passages, which I will excerpt for you below.  Oyeyemi’s characters are more fully realized too.  Maja’s friend Amy Eleni is a sharp, vivid character, and I missed her whenever she was not around.  Her friendship with Maja, an emotional anchor when Maja is trying to decide what to do, is utterly believable, the strongest part of the book.

I said I might have been being unfair to The Icarus Girl, and I think now I am being unfair in the opposite direction to The Opposite House.  I was so blown away by the improvement in Oyeyemi’s writing that I may be glossing over problems in the plot – the plot did not always work for me, and the connections between the two stories aren’t made clear.  But I am giving The Opposite House four stars anyway, because of the writing being so good.

I wrote this down in my commonplace book:

If you still knew who you were, you had to keep it a secret.  The gods hid among the saints and apostles and nobody perceived them unless they wanted to…A painting of a saint welling holy tears and the story of an Orisha teach you the same thing – if you cry for someone, it counts as prayer.

And this, I really really like too, and would have written it in my commonplace book except it was too long:

Like every girl, I only need to look up and a little to the right of me to see the hysteria that belongs to me, the one that hangs on a hook like an empty jacket and flutters with disappointment that I cannot wear her all the time.  I call her my hysteric, and this personal hysteric of mine is designer made (though I’m not sure who made her), flattering and comfortable, attractive even, if you’re around people who like that sort of thing.  She is not anyone, my hysteric; she is blank, electricity dancing around a filament, singing to kill.  It’s not that there are two Majas; there is only one, but she can disappear into her own tension and may one day never come back.

My second ever boyfriend – frizzy-blond-haired and built like a rugby player – was a postgraduate student five years older than me when I was in my first year.  Luke seemed to prefer my personal hysteric to me.  He told me over and over that I was beautiful, sweet, so clever.

In his mouth, on his tongue, those words were not safe.

And he said these terrible things earnestly enough to make me sit on my hands when I was across from him at dinner.  In his mouth, on his tongue, those words cast a spell which conjured me into the things he kept insisting I was.

Luke was always pleading with me to calm down before I even realized that I was unsettled.  I stopped daring to raise my voice at him, or smile too much, even.  Luke filled bedtime mugs for me, brimful with creamy white, warm Kahlua and milk.  When I sipped them sleepily from the enfoldment of his arms, I became convinced that I was ill, and that it was terminal.  There was no other reason for such care, for the way he laids lands on me so lightly that it seemed I was already disappearing.  One night, drunk, drunk, drunk, I dropped my empty shot glass and a full one for Luke, sat down beside the pieces and arranged them in my skin, twisting clear flowers planted to grow from my soles, my arms.  It hurt.  But wearing my hysteric, it became a matter of art and pain and so on.  It was extreme, it was because of tension.  Luke took me to the emergency room and spoke to me, richly, quietly, held me for as long as he could while I cried and put my sight away from my torn skin.

We went to a girls’ school, Amy Eleni and I.  We know about subtle, slow murder, the ways that glances and silences and unnecessarily kind words can have a girl running into traffic trying to get hit so that she doesn’t have to turn up the next day.  When Amy Eleni arrived at the hospital she was in no mood for pleasantries.  She took Luke aside and told him to “Fuck right off.  Immediately.”

I cannot wait to read White is for Witching!  I am so enjoying watching Helen Oyeyemi develop as a writer (coincidentally, Clare just posted about writers and their development, so I have been thinking about it even more).  Helen Oyeyemi is young!  And has many years in which to write more and more books!  I love young writers!

Have you read this book?  Leave me a link!

  • I’ve heard such good things about this author. I have The Icarus Girl on my shelf and I really want to read it soon.

    • I’d never heard of her before Eva posted her review of White is for Witching, and now I feel like I’m encountering her everywhere. (Meanwhile the person who has White is for Witching checked out of the library seems set to keep it forever.)

  • This post makes me want to get this book from the library. But what I really want to say is: I am glad to hear of someone else who reads while brushing teeth and cleaning contact lenses! My boyfriend makes fun of me for it, and it is sort of funny because I often end up sitting or standing in the hall outside the bathroom while he’s already in bed, because I’ve just been reading while brushing my teeth and want to get to a good stopping place before I turn out the lights and join him.

    • I used to spend more time hunting for the perfect book to read while brushing my teeth than it actually takes to brush my teeth. This keeping-a-book-in-the-bathroom business is working out well for me. 🙂

  • I enjoy reading your thoughts on the book, which I have never heard of; but I enjoy reading your routine with books. I hardly read in bed, but I do leave books on my night-stand. The ongoing book always stays in my bag. There are always a couple that sit around, which I read snippets of. Two promotions in your account, I bet it’s good. I’ll put it on my list. 🙂

    • I’m amazed that you never read in bed. Do you just not find it comfortable? I am addicted to reading in bed. I would read all bed all day every day if I could.

  • I like the idea of having a try-out location for books that may or may not work their magic. Probably not the bathroom, though, as the menfolk around here turn it into waterworld on a regular basis.

    • I have at least five books in my bathroom. I use them strategically to hold each other open so I can read them while doing two-handed activities like flossing.

  • Eva

    LOL at your hierarchy of books! Cracks me up. 🙂 I just read White is for Witching last month; now I’m worried that The Opposite House won’t live up to it. But I’ll read it anyway-like you, I think it’s neat to see how authors change.

    • The Opposite House was really good. I think The Icarus Girl might disappoint if you read it expecting it to be as good as White is for Witching (I’m guessing here, haven’t read WifW yet), but The Opposite House is good. Well-written.

  • I like your explanation of books’ status in your reading habits. It’s like a bare-bones rating system for the books.

    • I know, like a pre-review rating system. If I read it entirely during teeth-cleaning, it probably wasn’t any better than three stars.

  • I love the description of your hierarchical reading process! I returned The Opposite House unread to the library last year and I wish I had used your brushing your teeth incremental reading time for it. Currently I have White is for Witching Out so I better make a start to prevent the same thing happening.

    • I started White is for Witching again today, and it is even still better yet than The Opposite House. So definitely read this before it falls due! It’s beautifully written (what I’ve read so far). At the very least a bedside table book but in fact I think a handbag book.

  • anna

    would I like it?

    I foresee a future in which I may have a free hour every now and then, and I’d like some new things to read. Preferably things that will not leave me feeling sad, or depressed about the human condition, because those two things violate my Law School Reading Rule.

    • You wouldn’t like it at all. You would not like it in a box, and I venture to say, Anna T. Banana, you would also not like it with a fox. I suggest, watch Doctor Who some more! Or also, that episode of Angel where he has to be like a DEMON GLADIATOR. (I love that episode. Wesley shoots a guy in the hand.)

  • Hmm. How strange. I picked up Icarus Girl from the library the other week. I never managed to get to it before returning it. Something about it didn’t excite me enough. But I still picked up Opposite House the other day. I have it sitting in my pile of library books, waiting for my verdict..

    • Read it, read it. And then read White is for Witching, because so far, it’s even better!

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