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The Opposite House

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"I read The Opposite House with rare happiness. The voice in it is so sure, the risk it takes is so good and the intelligence in it is a sheer relief."
—Ali Smith, author of The Accidental

Maja Carmen Carrerra was only five years old when her family emigrated to London. Growing up, she speaks the Spanish of her native land and the English of her adopted country, but longs for a connection to her African roots. Now in her early twenties, Maja is haunted by thoughts of Cuba and the desire to make sense of the threads of her history. Maja's mother has found comfort in Santeria—a faith that melds Catholic saints and the Yoruba gods of West African religion. Her involvement with Santeria, however, divides the family as Maja's father rails against his wife's superstitions and the lost dreams of the Castro revolution.

Maja's narrative is one of two parallel voices in Oyeyemi's beautifully wrought novel. Yemaya Saramagua speaks from the other side of the reality wall—in the Somewherehouse, which has two doors, one opening to London, the other to Lagos. A Yoruban goddess, Yemaya, is troubled by the ease with which her fellow gods have disguised themselves as saints and reappeared under different names and faces.

As Maja and Yemaya move closer to understanding themselves, they realize that the journey to discovering where home truly lies is at once painful and exhilarating.

--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

Oyeyemi (Icarus Girl) returns to the realms of myth and magic in her second novel, the rewarding and challenging narrative of Maja, a 24-year-old black Cuban woman whose family fled Castro's revolution for London when she was seven. Maja has recently moved in with her boyfriend, Aaron, and discovers she is pregnant with the child she's wanted since she was five years old. And though adjusted to life in London, she begins to wonder about the country her family left behind. Coloring her search for a sense of belonging are the gods and goddesses of Santeria, a fusion of Catholicism and West African Yoruba beliefs. Flashbacks flesh out Maja's relationships with her Santeria-practicing Mami, her professor Papi (who is not a Santeria practitioner) and her bully-bait younger brother, Tomás. Maja's gay best friend, Amy Eleni, provides Maja with sharp insight that helps her come into her own. Interwoven is the story of Aya, a goddess of Santeria who lives in the "somewherehouse," which has one door that opens onto Lagos and one onto London. Though the prose can tend toward the imprecise ("she felt a pull and a fuzzy, bite-sized happiness"), the novel's lyrical and stylistic experimentation speaks to Oyeyemi's depth of talent. (June) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition. “Complex, challenging, utterly thrilling.” —The Miami Herald“A startling literary prodigy. . . . [Oyeyemi] has the ability to shift between realism and expressionism without surrendering to self-indulgence. . . . Recalls the visionary worlds of Emily Dickinson, Neruda and even Rimbaud.” —The Washington Post Book World “Beautiful, meandering. . . . [A novel] about the difficulties of knowing who you are, especially if you are born of several incompatible cultures.” —The Times (London)“Again displays [Oyeyemi's] amazing sure-handedness that is far beyond her years.” —Seattle Post-Intelligencer --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

2.5 (10191)
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Book details

  • PDF | 272 pages
  • Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (2012)
  • English
  • 6
  • Literature & Fiction

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Review Text

  • By Mocha Girl on August 4, 2007

    The Opposite House by Helen Oyeyemi is a somewhat complex novel that focuses on the antics of Maja Carrerra, a Cuban-born Londoner, who is pregnant by her white Ghanaian boyfriend and "the opposite house" where a Santerian goddess, Aya Saramagua, ventures out to find her roots amid a prevalent `ache/longing' that seems to permeate her world.Maja's world is filled with drama. Her parents, both highly educated academics, are exiles from Castro's Cuba who embrace London as a place for second chances, but cling to their Spanish and African roots. Her young mother is highly religious and blends Catholicism with Santeria (an African-Cuban religion), while her elderly father is seemingly an atheist. Thus, there is no surprise when her parents clash over religion and their disagreement lasts through the majority of the book. Her best friend, Amy Eleni, is a white lesbian who faces challenges dealing with her sexuality. Maja also deals with her unplanned pregnancy, her burgeoning singing career, her bohemian, film-maker boyfriend and a younger brother who is struggling to come of age as a black man in a Westernized London.Oyeyemi writes angst into Maja's character with a longing for Cuba and her ancestors there. There was an attempt to draw parallels between the London-based Maja and the Lagos-based Aya; the Amy in Maja's world and an Ami in Aya's world -- but the symbolisms and allegories were quickly lost with this reader. It got to a point (midway in the novel) where I felt I needed to reread passages for clarity and understanding, but at that point, I could really care less about the characters and persevered through the narrative just to get through the story.Honestly, if this were not a review book, I doubt if I would have had the interest and patience to finish the book. The author's writing style requires great patience on the reader's part and I found myself growing weary with the scene changes and the transitions from "reality" to the mystical "opposite" world where the story is carried in lyrical, symbolic prose (that I struggled to decipher). Initially, I was interested in Maja's world, but it quickly waned about a quarter into the book when the plot seemed to fizzle. I also really tried to connect with Aya's story, but failed miserably. The other characters (save Amy Eleni) offered nothing solid to support the plot or move the story forward. At the end of the novel, I felt no closure and was scratching my head and wondering what I had just read.This was my first read with the author. I heard and read the rave reviews about her debut, The Icarus Girl, but never got a chance to read it. When I read the premise behind this novel, I was excited and so very much wanted to enjoy it; however, I was somewhat disappointed with the book as a whole. On a positive note, the author was successful in covering the cross-cultural aspects and I gave her credit for creativity and educating the reader about challenges of immigrants and differing views on the African Diaspora; thus the "3" rating. I am willing to read her debut and hope it will prove to be a better read for me.Reviewed by PhyllisAPOOO BookClub

  • By Marius Gabriel on May 6, 2014

    Helen Oyeyemi is extraordinarily talented. She is also young and prolific -- her first novel was published before her 18th birthday -- and she doesn't always develop that talent to the full. In this extraordinary book, however, she fulfills all her great promise."The Opposite House" is the fictional autobiography of Maja, a young singer whose family have migrated from Nigeria to Cuba, and then to London. Enriched by three cultures, Maja is also left with inconsolable yearnings for what she has left behind. As she says of herself, "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."Moving effortlessly in and out of magical imaginings and memories that may be fantasies, Oyeyemi's narrative simply drags the reader along helplessly. Her language is poetic, soaring, often elliptical, sometimes generously lavish, always a delight. Some readers have complained that this is a dull read. I find that astonishing. To me, this is one of the most enjoyable books of the 21st Century. Others have found it difficult, which is perhaps the result of trying too hard to make sense of what is mystical in the novel, rather than simply experiencing it as something beguilingly crafted between poetry and narrative, partly understood, partly felt.Like Maja herself, the book is full of dichotomies, opposites, a house with two doors that lead to distinct cultures. The smoky gods of Voodoo vie with the Catholic Trinity; Santeria confronts the hard-edged tenets of Marxism; Maja's best friend, Amy Eleni, is a Cypriot Lesbian, the father of Maja's child is Aaron, a white Jew born in Ghana -- Maja's world is always divided, and she is always yearning for the other half, always lost.I recommend this beautiful book to all readers who are willing to let go and be pulled into new experiences. To be savoured and enjoyed and pondered over.

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