There is nothing second-best about the opening of Helen Oyeyemi's second novel:
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.
A somewherehouse is a brittle tower of worn brick and cedar wood, its roof cradled in a net of brushwood. Around it is a hush, the wrong quiet of woods when the birds are afraid. The somewherehouse is four floors tall. The attic is a friendly crawl of linked rooms, aglister with brilliant mirrors propped against walls and window ledges. On the second floor, rooms and rooms and rooms, some so tiny, pale and clean that they are no more than fancies, sugar-cubed afterthoughts stacked behind doorways. Below is a basement pillared with stone. Spiders zigzag their gluey webs all over the chairs. The basement's back wall holds two doors. One door takes Yemaya straight out into London and the ragged hum of a city after dark. The other door opens out onto the striped flag and cooking-smell cheer of that tattered jester, Lagos—always, this door leads to a place that is floridly day. (p. 1)
I haven't read a better piece of scene setting this year. I think it's the "wrong quiet" that sold me on it: that and the way the description of the somewherehouse is memorable ("sugar-cubed afterthoughts") without dissolving into abstractions. It is tangible. I believe in it. After a couple more pages I believe in Yemaya as well, which is just as well, because she's a goddess, and isn't much without believers. To be specific, Aya is an Orisha—"deadly friends from stories" (p. 35) is how one of the characters describes Orishas—a manifestation of the Santerian patron of women. She overflows, we are told, with "the kind of need that takes you across water on nothing but bare feet" (p. 3). She is "powerful, half mad, but quiet about it." And either The Opposite House isn't about her, or it's about only her. It's hard to say.
It seems more likely that the book is about Maja Carmen Carrera, who we meet a couple of pages later. Maja is 24; Cuban by way of Hamburg, Paris, and now London; uncertain, as may be expected, where she belongs; daughter of a teacher and an academic, with no leanings in either direction herself; living with her boyfriend, Aaron, who himself grew up in Ghana (but is white); a nightclub singer; and pregnant. She is not half mad, but she's got a lot going on, and she's sometimes touched by what she thinks of as her hysteric, "electricity dancing around a filament, singing to kill. [...] It's not that there are two Majas; there is only one, but she can disappear into her own tension and may one day never come back" (p. 29). She tells from near the edge, launching into her densely knotted first-person tale as though we already know Aaron, and her Mami and Papi (Chabelle and Juan), and her younger brother (Tomas), and her best friend (Amy Eleni). And why wouldn't she? She's not writing this down for our benefit; we're riding shotgun in her consciousness. But it means that reading Maja in short bursts is hopeless. For most of the book we're playing breathless catch-up, dashed between memory and the present, with the lingering sense that if she ultimately goes under, she might just suck us down with her. Here she goes:
But something is happening here, something that doesn't fall into good, OK, or bad. The hysteric isn't appealing to me; there is no need to beat her. I keep thinking, maybe if I could just know what my son looks like, who my son is, then I will be all right. I have strangeness in my family, a woman who was a priest when she wasn't supposed to be. I have delicacy in my family. I think. I don't know, am I delicate? I know by now that I am not going to be one of those pregnant women who touches her stomach in public; even when I am heavily pregnant I will keep my hands by my sides and keep a circumspect eye on the situation. (p. 120)
Aha! "I have strangeness in my family." Perhaps this is how Aya (who we frequently revisit) comes into Maja's story. She is the patron of pregnant women in particular, after all. Or perhaps it's not: Maja's Papi insists that the Santeria gods, whatever Mami may say, "are historical artefacts." To him, The Way of the Saints is not so much syncretic as garbled: " ... these gods or whatever, these beliefs don't transcend time and space; they stretch them unnecessarily, stretch the geography of the world like an elastic band. And you can't do that" (p. 76). So maybe Aya is just a story. Either way, Santeria is part of Maja's heritage, whether she remembers it or not (she was five when her family left Cuba). At one point she recalls the story of a Santeria Mass administered by her grandmother Carmen (the woman who was a priest when she wasn't supposed to be), at which the storm god, Chango, "stepped down from heaven [...] slid into the space left between song and drumbeat" (p. 37). Remembering these stories is important, because to Carmen, forgetting ancestors, culture, heritage, was a form of madness, was to forget yourself. Maja can relate.
For much of the book these touches of the miraculous and not quite sane feel more like the result of being deeply immersed in a particular way of seeing the world than the action of something waiting to reach into it. But Aya is still there, stubbornly, and the somewherehouse is still there, waiting. We start to wonder what Maja's family have done by dragging their culture across the world. After a gig, Maja is approached by Magalys, a girl she knew back in Cuba (and who, to Maja, seems more authentically Cuban, having left more recently); later they talk, and Magalys says:
"I don't know, sometimes it just doesn't really feel like anywhere over here. I look at maps and stuff and none of the places seem real. I think that's what happens when you don't belong to a country, though—lines are just lines, and letters are just letters, and you can't touch the meaning behind them the way you can when you're at home and you look at a map and you see, instead of a place name, a stretch of road or an orchard, or an ice-cream parlour around the corner." (p. 167)
This is, The Opposite House suggests, the condition of the migrant: inhabitant of a thinned world. Maja feels it acutely. She likens culture to a "pervading marinade," impossible to remove after a certain amount of exposure. She is self-conscious about her accent, too aware that the ears around her are "attuned to courteous, clipped white noise" (p. 22); yet neither is she the right kind of migrant, for she cannot claim the African heritage of the most popular girls at her school. She decides to go back to Cuba, so that she can understand what it means to have left—with a firm place to stand, she thinks, life might make some kind of sense—but the bitter irony at the heart of the novel is that maybe Aya has already tried that. Maybe when Aya "fled to be native, to start somewhere, to grow in that same somewhere, to die there" (p. 114), she fled into Maja; maybe that's what caused Maja's fit at the going-away party when her family left Cuba; maybe that's why she has always been waiting for her son to arrive, and why she's so certain her child will be a boy and will be hers (he is never "our child," though Maja hasn't had an ultrasound and seems to love Aaron). Maybe there is no firm place to stand.
Or maybe Aya is fleeing into Maja's child, to be born with wise eyes. Or maybe Aya really is just a story to Maja, as both of them are stories to us. Whichever way you read it, The Opposite House is, more often than not, extraordinary: at times virtually a prose poem, driven by rhythm and sensation, hypnotically profligate with bold phrases and visceral descriptions. (Comparisons? There is something of M. Rickert's work, maybe, in the moments of bone-scraping pain; something like the control of voice that marks out Eliot Fintushel's tales.) More importantly, the book is insightful, urgently and sometimes painfully so. What Oyeyemi shows us about cultural alienation, about what makes and marks a migrant, needs to be seen. It goes deep:
There is skin, yes. And then, inside that, there is your language, the casual, inherited magic spells that make your skin real. [...] And unless your skin and your language touch each other without interruption, there is no word strong enough to make you understand that it matters that you live. (p. 185)
At times, it's true, Maja's skin feels thin, stretched, raw. We can feel Oyeyemi writing through her character. But those times are rare; on most of the pages in this novel Maja lives, and it matters that she lives. This is her life.
Niall Harrison blogs at Torque Control.