April 04, 2009

The Opposite House by Helen Oyeyemi | Book Review


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]

20 comments:

  1. hmph...constructive criticise! I like it! I'm a bit disappointed though. Why didn't she go in different direction??!(I wish I cud ask her directly) thanx 4 d overview.

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  2. Osondu, hmm...I will tell Helen...she will screw you. How you dey?

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  3. @ Lati

    That's what i'm here for...

    @ Onyeka

    So I shouldn't tell my readers the truth again? (laugh). I love Helen o! Just tell her that before you show her this. It's nothing personal. Ejo.

    I dey kampe jare...I'm on Habila's Measuring Time right now... My schedules tight.

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  4. I really enjoyed reading this, loved the last statement...very balanced, euphemistic and maybe true!

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  5. I don't think the book was terrible - I actually thought it was remarkably well-written. The plot seemed necessarily convoluted at times but I kept reading because she writes well and her sentences are really quite spectacular. I've read her new book ("White is for witching") and I found it grossly disappointing. The writing isn't very good and the plot is frustratingly convoluted. I think she tries to do too much and something usually has to give. I like her style very much, though (at least in "The Opposite House") and I look forward to her future offerings.

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  7. *plot seemed unnecessarily convoluted...

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  8. @ Kay

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the book.I agree with you when you say she writes very well and her sentences are really quite spectacular. It's true. It's just I did not find Opposite House interesting, that's all I was trying to say. Anyone who says Oyeyemi hasn't got talent is either blind or retarded.

    I look forward to her future offerings too. Thanks a lot for sharing.

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  9. Man i sure need to start reading again...

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  10. This is a beautiful book. I read it in its entirety this afternoon.

    I personally find the way that your "review" is constructed is short-sighted and prescriptive; I certainly didn't have to "fight through the prose" and neither did any of my colleagues who have also read this. I found the writing rich and lush.

    You keep saying it is awful, or dreadful, but there is very little here in the way of genuine criticism, bar a personal dislike of her returning to the same subject.

    There are only so many "directions" an author can take. Clearly this is something she wants to write about, and far be it from the readers to demand something else from her.

    It's irritating reading this kind of review of a book. I'm not against disliking something, but to construct the argument against it in such a way makes it pointless for anyone else to read it but you, because you're simply not saying anything useful.

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  12. @ Anonymous

    I'm sorry if my review sounded that way to you. I have NOTHING against Helen Oyeyemi. Nothing. I loved her first book (there's a review in my blog archive), and I think it's an amazing debut. The Opposite House fails. It's the sad truth.

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  13. I don't wish to pick a fight with you, but you've done it again in your response.

    You say "The Opposite House fails", but you don't go into detail as to how. You say "it's the sad truth" when it clearly isn't. It might be for YOU, but the fact that I can talk in depth with a lot of people in positivity of this book means that it obviously isn't for everyone.

    When I said your article/blog/review was prescriptive, I meant just that. You have taken YOUR opinion of the book, which I know you are entitled to have even if I disagree, and made factual statements such as "it fails", "it is awful". These are subjective opinions, and require subjective, not objective, language.

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  14. @ Anonymous

    No, I don't think it's a fight. We're both airing our views. All i'm trying to say is I found the book neither absorbing nor entertaining. The title of my post is "The Opposite House by Helen Oyeyemi - My Thoughts". This book review is exactly that "My Thoughts" on Oyeyemi's book.

    It happens all the time with books. I could pick one book which I believe is "phenomenal", "flawless", and someone else on the other side of the Atlantic might disagree totally...

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  15. @ Osondu- I suppose Half of a Yellow Sun is one of your favourite books. If you're looking for 'light' reading, Oyeyemi is not for you. You don't read these types of books to find out what happened at the end, you read them so you can enjoy the journey.

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  16. @Anonymous

    You may be right in what you've written, Oyeyemi might not be for me. Thanks a lot for saying how you feel on this issue. I truly appreciate it.

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