Helen Oyeyemi is a story teller. Her work is steeped in religion, folklore, and mythology. Her characters breathe prayer and power. She will grab your attention quick, and send your spiraling through your own identity. Her stories whip in and out of the fantastic; one moment a character is studying for an exam, and the next they are overcome by the power of an ancient healer.
She is one of my favorite authors. She’s absolute magic. I picked up What is Not Yours is Not Yours when it was brand new; the cover was striking, the title reminded me of Miranda July, and I hadn’t read any Oyeyemi before. I devoured that in a night, then set my sights on her back catalog. My kindle made it easy; just tap, own, read. Why then, did it take me years to finish Opposite House?
Well, I got distracted. I got busy. I got hurt and I stopped reading for months on end. The kindle died, I got better, I got distracted again, and returned to hard copies. I thought I had finished all of Oyeyemi’s work- so imagine my surprise when, stuck at an airport and killing time during a layover, I installed the kindle app on my phone to find Opposite House! I had started it and immediately forgotten about it. I jumped back in, made it onto my flight, fell asleep…and forgot about it again.
My job changed quite a bit in mid-March- from necessity, not choice- much like many others all over the world. My hours stretched into days, my desk life melted away, and I found myself providing care at all hours of the day and night. Frequently, during the night, my charges were asleep. I was there just in case. While sitting at a bedside, just in case, I realized that I had forgotten my book. Digging around in my phone for something to pass the time, I once again stumbled upon Opposite House.
Opposite House and I were not exclusive. I continued to read beyond the bounds of this novel while returning to it when times were slow. Things have slowed down again here for the time being, and I have (mostly) returned to my previous role- but this time there was a change. I wasn’t going to forget Opposite House again. I opened it on my desktop and read it during quiet moments- one of those moments is happening right now. After four years, three mediums, and dozens of starts and stops, Opposite House and I have come to an end.
Part of the fragmentation in my reading came from the story itself; our time is divided between Maya and her family in London, and the Opposite House- a magical space where doors open into different places: London, Lagos, and Cuba. Moments between London and Opposite House bleed regularly in and out of each other; it is frequently difficult to tell where one thought ends and another begins. Characters respond to multiple names, reality becomes fantasy and back again, and it is easy to become overwhelmed by the process. I walked away from this book many times, but luckily as disjointed as it is, I was strangely able to slip back in without missing a beat.
Maya and her family are Cubans of African descent; she doesn’t feel Cuban, she doesn’t feel African, but the pull of both cultures tugs at her hem. Her family immigrated to London after Castro’s Revolution. Her father soothes himself with his work, her mother struggles to find herself. She copes by building an altar; she believes in Catholic saints, Yoruba protectors, and the magic of Santeria. Maya’s boyfriend is from Africa, and he is white. He holds tightly to his heritage, but it is difficult for Maya to accept his world.
Opposite House is Oyeyemi’s second novel, and her first was written while she was still in school. I did not love this piece as much as I have loved her later work; you can see the bones of what she will become, but the magic has yet to fully form around them. I would not recommend this piece as an introduction to Oyeyemi (that will be my re-read of Mr. Fox for Bingo), but it is a curiosity worth holding to the light.