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Books 45: The Opposite House by Helen Oyeyemi

Book 45: The Opposite House
Author: Helen Oyeyemi, 2007.
Genre: Magical Realism. Contemporary. Race. Religion.
Other Details: Hardback, 262 pages.

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.”
- opening of The Opposite House.

There are two doors in the basement of the somewherehouse - one leads to Lagos, one to London. Yemaya Saramagua is an avatar of the Yoruba goddess Yemaya. She has travelled with her believers to different parts of the world, including Cuba, where she continues to play a prominent role in the Santería religion. In the somewherehouse, which she shares with other Yoruba deities, she is restless.

The interludes with Yemaya within the somewherehouse pepper the novel almost as if they are fragments of dreams. The main protagonist of the novel is Maja Carmen Carrerra, a twenty-four year old singer whose black Cuban family emigrated to London for political reasons when she was seven. When she finds herself pregnant, her thoughts turn to Cuba as she feels an increasing sense of dislocation and a powerful yearning for 'my Cuba'. Aaron, the Jewish white Ghanaian father of her child, cannot understand why she appears to be retreating from reality. Her relationship with both her parent's is strained as her father places his faith in pure reason and she cannot relate to her mother's faith in Santeria. The only person who seems to be able to relate to her is her gay friend Amy Eleni.

I really wanted to like this book and while I could appreciate the lyrical beauty of the writing, I found its plot quite confusing. Admittedly I was reading it during the worse cold/flu I've had in years and my ability to appreciate narrative subtly was strained to say the least. I found I was unable to really understand what relationship there was between Maja and Yemaya. Were they one and the same or was the goddess with her unhappiness about the need for the Yoruba gods to clothe themselves in the trappings of Catholic saints another manifestation of Maja's sense of cultural dislocation? The nature of religious faith as well and cultural identity strongly informs the narrative.

In some ways the concept of the Yoruba gods living in a modern house and rather unhappy with their situation had strong echoes for me of Neil Gaiman's American Gods and Anansi Boys though Oyeyemi didn't seem to have the confidence that Gaiman demonstrates in depicting deities walking among us.

The critical reviews for the book were excellent, which again makes me think that my lacklustre response may have been due to my state of mind while chained to a box of tissues and full of cold meds. Although I had to return the book to the library, I suspect that I will come back to it and give it another shot.
Tags: british, magical realism, race, religion
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