Helen Oyeyemi – What is Not Yours is Not Yours

I managed to spend this week at home in bed with a terrible bronchitis, so not only didn’t I read a lot (90% of my time was spent sleeping, sweating, and coughing… seriously, it’s not pretty), but I also didn’t tell you about the books I had read prior to turning into a pale, clammy monster. Today, I feel a little better and can stare into a computer screen without headaches, so let’s do some catching-up, what do you say?

what-is-not-yours-is-not-yours2WHAT IS NOT YOURS IS NOT YOURS
by Helen Oyeyemi

Published by: Picador, 2016
Hardback: 263 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Once upon a time in Catalonia a baby was found in a chapel.

Playful, ambitious, and exquisitely imagined, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is cleverly built around the idea of keys, literal and metaphorical. The key to a house, the key to a heart, the key to a secret—Oyeyemi’s keys not only unlock elements of her characters’ lives, they promise further labyrinths on the other side. In “Books and Roses” one special key opens a library, a garden, and clues to at least two lovers’ fates. In “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” an unlikely key opens the heart of a student at a puppeteering school. “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” involves a “house of locks,” where doors can be closed only with a key—with surprising, unobservable developments. And in “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think,” a key keeps a mystical diary locked (for good reason).

Oyeyemi’s creative vision and storytelling are effervescent, wise, and insightful, and her tales span multiple times and landscapes as they tease boundaries between coexisting realities. Is a key a gate, a gift, or an invitation? What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours captivates as it explores the many possible answers.

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Normally when I review story collections, I like to talk about each story a little bit but I won’t do that here. As with most collections, I loved some stories, liked others, and disliked one or two. But “dislike” isn’t the right word because the few stories that I’d rate a little lower are simply ones that didn’t stick in my mind, not even a week after I read them. I do remember while reading them that I thought they were weird, strangely-constructed tales that start one way, then take a crazy turn and end up being about something completely different. That doesn’t make them bad stories, they just didn’t work for me (much like Oyeyemi’s strange novel Mr. Fox).

Before I get into my favorite stories and why they are so wonderful, one thing about their interconnectedness. Oyeyemi tried what Angela Slatter does so perfectly in her story collections (in case you want my fangirling thoughts, here are my reviews for Sourdough and The Bitterwood Bible). One story’s side character comes back later as a protagonist, or a new side character, or we go back in time and see their childhood – and that’s how the stories are supposed to be connected and tell one bigger tale. Except it doesn’t really work all that well in What is Not Yours is Not Yours. First of all, the stories are so different in tone, setting, and time period, that it was difficult for me to find any sort of common ground. And when I did recognise a character from a previous story, I had a hard time reconciling that person in the current story with who I met before. There was one mention of some previous characters that made me smile, because we find out what happened to them after their story ended, but in most tales, I didn’t really need them to connect to the rest of the collections. The stories stand on their own.

what-is-not-yours-is-not-yours3

Now. Here’s why you should read this collection. It has fairy tale-esque stories, like “drownings”, filled with evil tyrants who drown their enemies in the swamp, princesses and the perfect fairy tale voice, but it also has paranormal-ish (and seriously creepy) tales like “Presence” about a couple who tries a new sort of therapy which is supposed to help the bereaved reconnect with their dead loved ones. It was a truly chilling tale, but the creepiness levels were always just right.

There is one story that chilled me to the bone for other reasons. When a Youtube video exposes a famous musician – Matyas Füst – as having beaten up a girl, the world answers. And it answers pretty much the way you’d expect our world to answer. The social media attacks are aimed mostly at the victim, the half-hearted apologies by the celebrity are eaten up by his fans, and hey, why not use this incident to write a new song that will make him some more millions? This story was both sickening and fascinating, because we also see how a fan tries to justify her idol’s actions so she can keep liking him.

Then he stood over her in all his wealth and fame and arrogance and shrugged when she said she wasn’t going to keep quiet about this. Matyas Füst had shrugged and asked her if she thought anybody was going to give a shit that someone like her had got hurt. A nameless junkie with seriously crazy English. Look at you, he said. And look at me.

But by far my favorite story – and maybe because it is such an uplifting, hopeful one – was “A brief history of the Homely Wench Society” which tells of two Cambridge University clubs. The Bettencourt Society is basically the rich boys’ club and no women are allowed in their hallowed halls. Except when they pick the most beautiful girls to have dinner with them. However, the not-so-beautiful girls are fighting back. They created their own club whose purpose is to see the Bettencourt Society go down.
While this story starts as a basic us vs. them/boys vs. girls/beautiful vs. plain/rich vs. poor type tale, it slowly unwinds into something more complex and more hopeful. And inter-club romances make it just a little bit harder to keep hating each other. My favorite part was definitely the prank the Homely Wenches pull by breaking into the Bettencourt library and exchanging some of their male-authored books with some female-authored ones they brought. And both sides soon have to admit that the others have pretty good taste in books (and nobody gives a shit if the writer was male or female). It was adorable and I loved every part of the story, but that prank and the ending especially left me beaming with joy.

The book’s opening story “Books and Roses” was also beautifully told and although it has a healthy dose of magical realism, was the perfect tale to fall into. It’s also the beginning of the collection’s theme of keys. Much like the recurring characters, I didn’t think the key theme added much to the collection, because the subject matter and voice is so different from one tale to the next, but it is a lovely bit of imagery. I was also reminded just how many things can be considered keys and in how many shapes and sizes keys actually come.

Pretty much as expected this was a mixed bag for me, but I will continue to keep my eye out for Helen Oyeyemi’s books. When she goes too abstract, I usually don’t get much out of her fiction, but when she hits a note I like, she really hits it. I can’t wait to discover what she will come up with next.

MY RATING:  7,5/10 – Very good!

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4 thoughts on “Helen Oyeyemi – What is Not Yours is Not Yours

  1. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    Poor youuuu! Bronchitis is the absolute worst — I had it at the start of my sixth-grade year and I can still remember how miserable it was. I hope you’re feeling much much better now!

    I love Helen Oyeyemi, but as with most authors, she’s better for me in novels than short stories. There were parts of this collection that blew me away, though!

    Like

    • Dina says:

      Thank you, I am much better now. 🙂
      My favorite Oyeyemi is still Boy, Snow, Bird and I hope she’ll write something similar soon. I find it fascinating what she does with language and characters, so I’ll pretty much try anything she writes.

      Like

  2. Jupiter Brown says:

    Great review! I absolutely LOVE Oyeyemi’s style, but I get that it’s not for everyone. Most of what I’ve heard about What is Not Yours is Not Yours just makes me want to read it more, but I’d not really seen a breakdown of some of the best stories before, so thank you for that! I think I’ll be ordering it tonight ;).

    Like

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