Whenever I am looking for something a bit unusual to read I turn to Helen Oyeyemi’s books. What do a young migrant singer and a god have in common? Oyeyemi successfully ties a string around their individual stories and merges it to create The Opposite House. The Opposite House is set in two worlds. London and Cuba where Maja resides and the spirit world where Yemaya , a displaced Yoruba deity resides. The lines between these two worlds are so thin it is hard to notice when we leave one and move into the other.
In the story, pregnant Maja struggles with an ever creeping feeling of displacement. She had always held on to her Cuban roots as an anchor. When her memories of the past are shattered she decides to visit Cuba again. Yemaya is dealing with another type of identity crisis. Not only is she in a strange land, but fellow gods have also donned strange faces as well.
Both “women” struggle to find their feet throughout the book. While Maja has her family, Aaron her boyfriend, and her best friend Amy Eleni, Yemaya has no one to help her. Oyeyemi explores the difficulty of communication. Maja learns to speak with measured words so she is understood. In Yemaya’s world, the three gods learn a new tongue to fit in but fail. They lapse into silence afterward. Maja’s relationship with Aaron is filled with lapses of silence, where he tries to understand what is wrong and where she tries to stay sane. Oyeyemi explains that communicating the feelings of displacement is not a task anyone can undertake.
To understand the book, one has to look closely. To slow down a bit and go over the words that Oyeyemi has brought together to build these worlds. Maja’s feeling of displacement is mirrored in Yemaja’s new unfamiliar surroundings in the somewherehouse. The gods show how migrants have to assume new identities, lose their names, and tongues that they are understood and fit in. Migration affects everyone even the gods, the most powerful. Though it seems sad, The Opposite House has a satisfactory denouement. With Maja finding home with her family and her baby. And with Yemaya finding release in the darkness.
I would recommend The Opposite House for a reader that is searching for a book that is a bit odd and mystical. An unhurried gaze is the best way to enjoy this book for the masterpiece that it is.