Writing a second novel after the huge success of the first must be a little scary. There’s definitely enormous pressure to deliver a second time. Helen Oyeyemi’s second book The Opposite House, published two years after her critically acclaimed and successful debut novel The Icarus Girl, seems to be one of those books written either in a hurry or under pressure.
“Sometimes a child with wise eyes is born.
Then some people will call that child an old soul.
That is enough to make God laugh. For instance there is Yemaya Saramagua, who lives in the somewherehouse.”
Those are the first four sentences in The Opposite House. It tells the story of Maja, a 24-year-old girl who has lived in London since she was five. She’s a mediocre singer about to graduate from college. She hides the early stages of her pregnancy from her devoted boyfriend Aaron, and refuses to marry him for some reason that translates into – I’m not ready for marriage just yet. She and her gay friend Amy Eleni, a Cypriot, who seems to have the same hysteric problem Maja does, bond tightly despite the usual ups and downs of friendship.
Her parents are black Cubans who have fled their country because of the turmoil created by leaders they had faith in. Maja yearns to visit what she calls “my Cuba”, to explore this fatherland that she has been thinking about for a very long time and buys plane tickets before telling her father. He refuses to give his consent because he’s disappointed and saddened by the events that are occurring in their homeland. He tells Maja that the reason they are not living in Cuba is because: “…it’s not safe…staying there is accepting the lies of a regime that in its aimlessness will destroy the country.” He has shifted base to London because he wants his family to be free, to be under a government that does not affect whether or not they can eat what they want to eat, see films they want to see and read what they want to read. "I brought you here so you don't have to live in a place where politics can actually bust your door down, or make you disappear..." He suspects that his parents and in-laws have have roots in Abeokuta, Nigeria. His wife's religion is a blend of Catholicism and old traditional customs, that he finds irritating and tries hard to tolerate.
In the book, Maja does a lot of thinking about her roots. There’s a part in the novel where a Nigerian kid in her class holds a special assembly of friends on the independence day of her country and passes around Nigerian snacks. Amy and Maja are irritated by this action and Amy asks out loud:
“Can I just ask you what you think of this idea: if your parents taught you to be so proud of Nigeria, how come they’re over here?” The embarrassed child stammers and fiddles with her tie and dye head wrap. Later on, Amy wrote:
“You know what, if you want to talk about your country, if you want to be serious about it, fine. But you don’t need to pretend that you love the place. People need to stop using love of some country that they don’t live in as an excuse for their inability to shut up about it.”
That portion of the novel will ring in the head of immigrants long after they drop the book. The Opposite House still contains themes that Oyeyemi explored in The Icarus girl (you can find my thoughts on it here). Did I envisage that? No. Did I find that disappointing? Yes. It would have been more refreshing for her to steer clear of those themes, at least for her second book.
I hate to say this but I must. The Opposite House is the worst book I’ve read in a while. My mind kept screaming for me to put it down. It goes this way and then it goes that way. It’s a struggle to read this book. The only reason I ploughed through this book was for the purpose of this review. I forced myself to read lines that my brain repelled. This is no book for “light reading”. This is one of those books a lot of people will pick up then drop, then pick up again, and then fight through the prose in the hope of finding a more engaging center. The Opposite House by Helen Oyeyemi is one of those books you read and never recommend to someone else. Oyeyemi possesses incredible talent, make no mistake about that, however The Opposite House is a dreadful book.
[Image via FantasticFiction.co.uk]