In the Brothers Grimm version of Hansel and Gretel, two runaway children think they’ve found sanctuary in a house made from gingerbread. In Oyeyemi’s 2019 creation, Gretel is Harriet’s childhood friend, whose presence in Harriet’s life manifested enormous events when the pair were younger. Harriet’s daughter, Perdita, has heard her mother’s stories about Gretel all of her life. They inspire Perdita to set off in search of Gretel, whom her mother hasn’t seen in a long time. That journey provides the basic recipe for the novel, with various encounters with those with wealth, or those who hold a grudge, or those whose jealousy has warped them.
Along the way, readers will find out how gingerbread has eased the lives of Perdita and Harriet. Regardless of whether her gingerbread is popular with Perdita’s friends and their mothers, Harriet knows that back in Druhástrana, the isolated—some say mythical—country that Harriet claims as her homeland, the gingerbread is the currency that makes all things possible.
Once again, Oyeyemi’s weaving together of fairy tale, mythology, and her seemingly unlimited writer’s imagination creates a novel that readers will want to eat in huge chunks of spicy sweetness.
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours
In 2015, Oyeyemi published this collection of stories. While each story is a stand-alone tale, the stories in What Is Yours Is Not Yours are linked by common elements. In some, it’s the presence of a physical object, or characters encountered in one story may show up again in another story. The effect is to reward those who read all of the stories with the sense of having read a free-form novel.
As one critic noted when discussing this book, Oyeyemi “seems incapable of writing anything that’s less than brilliant.” A standard that she meets each time her work is published. It is difficult not to fall into the first story based just on its title: “books and roses” strike me as the perfect gift from a special someone who knows me well. This story begins, “Once upon a time in Catalonia a baby was found in a chapel.” Years later, that foundling will meet someone who holds a key that will unlock long-kept secrets.
The story, “dornička and the st. martin’s day goose,” begins as a country mouse, city mouse tale, as two cousins debate the merits of living in a big city versus those of living in the country. But that story is interrupted by a fascinating development when a middle-aged woman wearing a red cape meets a wolf looking for entertainment. And “sorry’ doesn’t sweeten her tea” is set at a “Swiss-Style Weight-Loss Clinic,” where clients check in expecting to lose weight while being knocked unconscious for three days. But their sleep is disrupted when the very sexy famous singer many of these women love is accused by his girlfriend of beating her up.
These are just three of the stories that will convince readers that Helen Oyeyemi is equally talented whether writing a novel or these short bursts of narrative color and energy.
Boy, Snow, Bird
In the fairy tale, “Snow White,” events are set in motion when the queen is informed by her mirror that the “fairest in the land” is no longer her. That accolade has passed to her step-daughter. In Oyeyemi’s novel based on “Snow White,” the ways that people interpret and respond to an individual’s image, and the judgments made that are based on those perceptions undergirds everything.
The story begins in the voice of Boy, the strikingly beautiful daughter of a New York rat-catcher. She makes the decision to flee, and she ends up in a small Massachusetts town. There she meets and marries Arturo Whitman, a jewelry designer with a daughter, Snow. Boy becomes Snow’s step-mother. And while Boy has been afraid of all of the “evil stepmother” cliches, she and Snow develop a strong, loving relationship. But when Boy becomes pregnant and gives birth to Bird, a number of family secrets are revealed, and their revelations fracture the bond between Boy and Snow.
“For me Boy, Snow, Bird is is very much a wicked stepmother story. Every wicked stepmother story is to do with the way women disappoint each other, and encourage each other, across generations. A lot of terrible things can come out of that disappointment,” Helen Oyeyemi told a Guardian interviewer in 2014.
White is for Witching
Years ago, I remember reading about a health condition called “pica.” People who have pica are driven to eat material that is not food. Their desires can range from crayons to topsoil, and most of them require medical help to stop the urges. In White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi inhabits a character, Miranda, whose obsession is with eating chalk. Miranda’s struggle arises in the wake of the death of her mother, Lily, who had been doing humanitarian work in Haiti. Lily’s violent death sets off a number of physical and psychological symptoms that plague “Miri” and worry Miri’s twin brother, Eliot.
Lily and Miri are two of the generations of Silver women who have lived in the rambling old house in Dover, on the coast of England. As the novel progresses, Oyeyemi introduces readers to Anna and Jennifer, older generations of Silver women, who reach across time to make contact with the suffering Miri. But as with all of her novels, another voice emerges and readers will enjoy solving the puzzle posed by this voice.
Oyeyemi has crossed genres again in this narrative. On the surface, this is a coming-of-age novel about a teenaged girl affected by the enormous tragedy of losing her mother. But on other levels, it’s a mystery. It’s a ghost story in which the shades of lives past take unexpected forms in the house.
In the kitchen, one of the residents receives a message that hints at the stakes raised within the Silver family home and that readers will thrill to when the answers are revealed. “Juju is not enough to protect you. Everything you have I will turn against you. I’ll turn sugar bitter for you. I’ll take your very shield and crack it on your head. White is for witching, so ti gbo? Do you understand now?”
Watch a crime drama and chances are high that the plot will focus on a violent act against a woman. The rape culture that we live in has normalized the fact that we treat the sexual assault or brutal killing of a female character as entertainment. In Mr. Fox, Oyeyemi provides a sly and comic rebuttal of such violence in a novel in which the long-suffering muse of a famous author shows up at his door to challenge him to write better female characters.
Mary, the muse, confronts Mr. Fox with a list of every female character that he has defenestrated, beheaded, mutilated, disemboweled, and tortured to make the point that if he weren’t an author, he would be a serial killer. And she challenges him to a contest that will write him into a series of dangerous situations from which he cannot extricate himself. Just as he is experiencing life from the other side of the page, he runs into further trouble. His life is turned upside down when his wife becomes aware that her husband is engaged in conversations with a strange woman who is alone with him in his office.
Readers will enjoy the ways that Oyeyemi plays with the novel’s form, as Mary writes and re-writes narratives in which Mr. Fox develops intimate knowledge of the lives of characters that he has previously treated like fictional objects. Oyeyemi said about the book, “[I]t’s a story about the power of stories; Mary wants to broaden Mr Fox’s perspective on love and his attitude towards the stories he tells, and part of that process is destabilising him and interfering with almost everything he’s previously believed about the way a story goes.”
The Opposite House
Imagine living in a “somewherehouse.” It rises four stories, a brittle tower combining brick and cedar. Despite its mundane appearance, inside it is a wonder of multiple rooms from attic down to the ground floor where a person can select that day’s sitting room based on a mood reflected in that space. Down in the dark basement where the spiders live, two doors are located on the back wall. And here is where the magic of the house is fully revealed.
Step out one door into bustling London at night, aglow with neon and the sounds of a city that never sleeps. But choose to walk out the other door and you walk out into hot sunshine, and take in the cooking smells where cooks prepare the delicious cuisine of Lagos, Nigeria. Two cities, 3,121 miles apart. Both right outside the door. Aya occupies this house, where she works for the Kayode family, cooking Sunday feasts of “yellow rice and beans, slivers of slow roasted pork and escabeche.” But in addition to her talent as a chef, Aya also possesses a powerful energy that she will harness in secret ways.
In another London house lives Maja, a singer of Afro-Cuban descent. When she is fifteen, she reads the words of Saint Teresa of Ávila, the Sixteenth-Century mystic, who documented her mystical experiences including her confrontations with the devil. Inspired, Maja seeks peace in St. Catherine’s, where she experiences her own interactions with the saints.
These two women with their disparate backgrounds and beliefs will come together, and Oyeyemi complects the meanings drawn from Maia’s Catholicism with the tradition of Santeria with which Aya is conversant. The Opposite House brings together the “opposites” of faith and belief and time and space to construct a narrative in which readers may find shelter.
The Icarus Girl
In many ways, the existence of this book is an astounding accomplishment. Few teenagers have their first literary novel accepted before they receive their acceptances to university. But that’s what happened for the eighteen-year old Helen Oyeyemi when she sold The Icarus Girl to a publishing house in Great Britain.
But, as a number of critics discovered and wrote about in their reviews, while Oyeyemi’s age made the book a curiosity, the maturity of the writing and its complex but intriguing plot made the book a success regardless of the age of its author. Some of the themes first expressed in The Icarus Girl, especially the theme of “doubling,” are ideas that she has returned to in later novels. The freshness of her approach won Oyeyemi a a lot of fans, and the success of the novels that followed testify to the readers’ joy in following an author whose work continues to show growth and a willingness to untangle knotty plots.
The book opens with eight-year old Jessamy locked in a linen closet, where she has secreted herself away from her parents. They live in London and Jess’s mother is Nigerian while her father is English. Jess is being bullied at school. Already fragile, Jess throws a tantrum that convinces her mother that the girl needs to go back to Nigeria to be raised in a more comfortable environment for her.
But in Nigeria, Jess makes a friend, a girl named TillyTilly, who delights Jess with her stories and with the adventures she creates for them both. But alone with TillyTilly, Jess begins to experience unsettling things. When her mother takes Jess back to England, everyone thinks that’s the end of the girls’ friendship, until a short time later, when TillyTilly shows up at Jess’s door, claiming that her family has just moved into the neighborhood.
If you love stories where everyone has an exact double and meanings can be changed by the flip of a coin and the new best friend is just a little bit creepy, then prepare yourself for a fun, spooky ride with the havoc caused by these two little girls.
Helen Oyeyemi broke into the publishing world before she went to university. Her first novel, The Icarus Girl, was published in 2005, when she was eighteen years old. As remarkable an achievement as that was, Oyeyemi has followed up on the promise of her early literary genius with the publication of a number of critically well-received novels and short story collections. Her seventh book, Gingerbread, was recently published on March 5, 2019.
Helen Oyeyemi was born in Nigeria, but moved at age four to London, where her mother works for the London Underground and her father is a substitute teacher. As a child, she spent a lot of time at the library and reading fiction made an enormous impact upon her, to the point that her responses to fiction melded her own writing career. In response to a question about her favorite books as a young person, Oyeyemi credited Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women with inspiring her young self to write. In a bittersweet anecdote that hit me right in the feels, Oyeyemi told how the experience of having Alcott’s novel break her heart inspired her to start writing. “In her inscrutable authorial wisdom, L. M. Alcott allowed Beth March to die of scarlet fever, and she allowed Jo March to marry someone who wasn’t Theodore Lawrence,” Oyeyemi wrote. “These events grieved a young reader in deepest South London in a very particular way that led her to probe and consider the limitations and function of a story . . . what I’m saying is that the very first fiction I wrote was really a series of argumentative little plasters to try to cover those Little Women-related wounds.”
It is difficult to pin down a genre for her books. Oyeyemi’s books often concern themselves with retelling fairy tales or myths, but in ways in which she uses the old stories in ultra-modern ways in order to elucidate eternal truths. Her novels and short stories wrestle with death and the macabre and yet they do so by an invocation of love, joy, and playfulness. Her novels draw from European fairy tales as set down by the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen; they weave together such fairy tales with the storytelling tradition of the Yoruba people who occupy parts of modern Nigeria, Benin, and Togo. These tales are part of the culture of the Yoruba, who produced an enormous body of literature—both written and oral—that served not only as entertainment but also illustrated Yoruba philosophy and theology. Drawing from European and African traditions, Oyeyemi’s stories are thus journeys taking readers into deceptively ordinary settings in which magical and mystical occurrences are part of characters’ quotidian lives.
Read It Forward has put together this primer on the fantastic worlds created by Helen Oyeyemi, an author whose unique approach to story-telling has made her a favorite of readers around the world.
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Featured image: Matt McCarty