Magical Realism: Helen Oyeyemi – Gingerbread

I’ve been in love with Helen Oyeyemi’s writing ever since I read Boy, Snow, Bird and although Mr. Fox was a bit too experimental for my taste, her latest novel was a good one again. Not as amazing as Boy, Snow, Bird maybe, but an interesting story that combines fairy tale elements with magical realism.

GINGERBREAD
by Helen Oyeyemi

Published by: Macmillan, 2019
Ebook: 304 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Harriet Lee’s gingerbread is not comfort food.

Influenced by the mysterious place gingerbread holds in classic children’s stories–equal parts wholesome and uncanny, from the tantalizing witch’s house in “Hansel and Gretel” to the man-shaped confection who one day decides to run as fast as he can–beloved novelist Helen Oyeyemi invites readers into a delightful tale of a surprising family legacy, in which the inheritance is a recipe.
Perdita Lee may appear to be your average British schoolgirl; Harriet Lee may seem just a working mother trying to penetrate the school social hierarchy; but there are signs that they might not be as normal as they think they are. For one thing, they share a gold-painted, seventh-floor walk-up apartment with some surprisingly verbal vegetation. And then there’s the gingerbread they make. Londoners may find themselves able to take or leave it, but it’s very popular in Druhástrana, the far-away (and, according to Wikipedia, non-existent) land of Harriet Lee’s early youth. In fact, the world’s truest lover of the Lee family gingerbread is Harriet’s charismatic childhood friend, Gretel Kercheval–a figure who seems to have had a hand in everything (good or bad) that has happened to Harriet since they met.
Decades later, when teenaged Perdita sets out to find her mother’s long-lost friend, it prompts a new telling of Harriet’s story. As the book follows the Lees through encounters with jealousy, ambition, family grudges, work, wealth, and real estate, gingerbread seems to be the one thing that reliably holds a constant value. Endlessly surprising and satisfying, written with Helen Oyeyemi’s inimitable style and imagination, it is a true feast for the reader.

This book felt like several stories wrapped into one. It begins with Harriet Lee, mother of Perdita Lee, trying to get into the social circle of the other parents of her daughter’s classmates. This proves more difficult than expected, despite her generous gift of home-made gingerbread. It’s also the story of her daughter Perdita, who wants to find out more about her heritage and the country of Druhástrana which doesn’t seem to exist yet her mother and grandmother supposedly came from. They even have the accent to prove it.

After Perdita takes radical action in order to visit Druhástrana, Harriet opens up to her about her own childhood on that island nation that is only mentioned as a myth. The descriptions of Druhástrana and the farmstead where Harriet spent her childhood are exactly as dreamlike and fairy tale-esque as you’d expect them to be. This made-up country is filled with weird places, weirder traditions, and some weird people. Whether it’s the Parkers, who train homing pigeons (unfortunately, the last ones never returned) or the Lees themselves, who are farmers like everyone else but who also happen to make the most delicious gingerbread.

It is during that childhood that Harriet meets Gretel, one of the stranger characters of this book. And considering that everybody is a little strange here, that’s saying a lot. But the two girls become friends quickly and it is through Gretel that Harriet gets to leave the farmstead for Druhá City where she becomes a Gingerbread Girl. She and her friends promote and sell their famous gingerbread in exchange for money that they can send home to their poor families. Except, Clio Kercheval, the woman who runs this operation, isn’t all she appears to be.

In fact, the Kercheval family features prominently in this book as Harriet gets to know more of them. Her journey leads her to London, more Kerchevals, and more gingerbread. This is where I stop telling you about the plot – it’s not the main thing of the book anyways. Although don’t be fooled, there is a plot and although it meanders at time, things fall into place at the end and make at least some sense. 🙂
On the way, there are talking dolls, a teenage pregnancy, friendship rings, lottery tickets, and maybe even a ghost.

What’s really more important for this book is its characters and their relationships. Most of them are complete mysteries, their motives unknown, their characters difficult to understand, but that was a large part of the appeal for me. I also enjoyed figuring out how everything fits together, learning who Perdita’s father is (her mother never told her) and finding out whether there will ever be a reunion between Harriet and Gretel.

Oyeyemi’s best quality, though, is her writing style. I don’t know any author who writes quite like her. Sometimes, there are pages upon pages that just flow into each other, changing subject rapidly but never taking you out of that reading flow. It’s impressive, to say the least, and at times felt like wandering around in a dream. You go from Harriet e-mailing the other parents to her feeding her daughter gingerbread to her remembering a girl named Gretel, who she made a promise to long ago all in the matter of a chapter but these topics bleed into each other so effortlessly that it all feels organic and makes the book hard to put down.

Although the title and cover could make you think this is a retelling of Hansel and Gretel, it’s not. Oh, there are definitely mentions of the fairy tale, there are hints here and there, little winks to elements of the Grimms’ story but it’s definitely not a retelling the way I understand it. Instead of telling of two siblings who are lost in the woods, this is the story of a mother and daughter who are lost in the world and just now starting to find their place. It’s about an intricate family network, about friendships that last decades, and, yes, about gingerbread. While I didn’t find this tale as exciting and emotional as Boy, Snow, Bird, it had many things going for it and the ending was a thing of pure beauty. I can’t wait to see what Oyeyemi comes up with next.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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.

divider1

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!

divider1

 

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Helen Oyeyemi – Mr. Fox

Even without certain campaigns, Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird never stood a chance of getting a Hugo Award or even a nomination. Nonetheless, I nominated it because I loved it so, so much and that’s what the Hugos are all about! After reading that book, I bought everything else I could find by Oyeyemi. This wasn’t as up my alley as Boy, Snow, Bird but Oyeyemi is still an author I want to follow very closely.

mr foxMR. FOX
by Helen Oyeyemi

Published by: Riverhead Books, 2011
Ebook: 336 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Mary Foxe came by the other day – the last person on earth I was expecting to see.

Fairytale romances end with a wedding. The fairytales that don’t get more complicated. In this book, celebrated writer Mr. Fox can’t stop himself from killing off the heroines of his novels, and neither can his wife, Daphne. It’s not until Mary, his muse, comes to life and transforms him from author into subject that his story begins to unfold differently. Meanwhile, Daphne becomes convinced that her husband is having an affair, and finds her way into Mary and Mr. Fox’s game. And so Mr. Fox is offered a choice: Will it be a life with the girl of his dreams, or a life with an all-too-real woman who delights him more than he cares to admit?

divider1

Mr. Fox is a writer whose imaginary muse Mary Foxe has qualms about the way he tends to kill off his female characters. In a game of story-telling, the two of them weave fairy tales, play with Bluebeard, and explore their relationship. Then Mr. Fox’ wife Daphne joins in and the relationships become more and more complicated.

You can read this book as a short story collection or a fix-up-novel but either way, it’s never quite clear which parts are reality, which are stories, if Mary is real or just a figment of Mr. Fox’ imagination. Some stories are clearly told by one of the protagonists, others could be attributed to any (or none) of them. This mosaic novel is fairly complex – it needed full concentration to follow the plot, if indeed you can call it plot. I enjoy a novel that challenges me but Mr. Fox gave me headaches. Despite the fixed points of St. John Fox, Mary, and Daphne, it was difficult to find a red thread to follow. This did in no way diminish the pleasure gained from reading each short story on its own merits.

Oyeyemi’s language did not disappoint. I knew I’d discovered a new favorite after reading Boy, Snow, Bird. A writer who can weave such beautiful sentences just couldn’t have written a bad book! The style is lyrical, yet on a sentence level not overly drawn out. The complexity of these stories stems more from my attempt to ground them in reality somehow, which I probably shouldn’t even have tried. There is a fairy tale feel to each story, whether it’s the more obviously fantastical ones in which foxes dress in human clothes, or the more realistic ones (without talking animals).

mr fox alternate coverThe most interesting aspect for me was Daphne’s involvement in the strange relationship between writer and muse. At first, she feels threatened by Mary’s presence (who cares if she’s real or imaginary?), and she worries about her marriage to Mr. Fox. Daphne was an intriguing character who didn’t shy away from examining her own motives for marrying Mr. Fox, the way their marriage has gone so far, and the way she sees other women. When Mary and Daphne meet, I expected what TV taught me to expect – namely that the two would fight or bitch or put each other down. What Helen Oyeyemi did instead was pure, refreshing amazingness! In fact, all relationships between the three protagonists take interesting turns and subvert tropes. Especially the ending was  delicious.

What I was missing a bit was the exploration of Mr. Fox’ tendency to kill his female characters. Mary wants him to question his own motives but I didn’t really see this idea developed much further. The problem is that I’m not sure if I simply misunderstood some of the stories, if my language skills let me down and I missed some subtle nuances, or if Oyeyemi really didn’t want to pursue the topic any further. It took me quite a while to read the novel so it’s probably I who is to blame.

All things considered, I still enjoyed the read and will definitely pick up the rest of Oyeyemi’s books. If the next novel is just slightly more straight forward, I’ll be one happy kitten.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

divider1

Other reviews:

(note: It appears I’m not the only one confused by this book. Big sigh of relief.)

FTF Book Review: Helen Oyeyemi – Boy, Snow, Bird

Every year, I think I’m insane when I sign up for too many reading challenges. But it is exactly these challenges that lead me to books that I might otherwise have missed, that make me discover authors that become favorites. Helen Oyeyemi is such an author. Her latest novel fit beautifully into some of my reading challenges, as well as my theme of the month. And it was so good, I already put all her other books on my soon-to-read list.

boy snow birdBOY, SNOW, BIRD
by Helen Oyeyemi

Published by: Riverhead, 2014
Hardcover: 308 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.

divider1
Fairy Tales Retold

  • Snow White

divider1

Synopsis

In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts, looking, she believes, for beauty—the opposite of the life she’s left behind in New York. She marries a local widower and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow Whitman.
A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African Americans passing for white. Among them, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.
Dazzlingly inventive and powerfully moving, Boy, Snow, Bird is an astonishing and enchanting novel. With breathtaking feats of imagination, Helen Oyeyemi confirms her place as one of the most original and dynamic literary voices of our time.

divider1
Review

I had never read anything by Helen Oyeyemi before so this book hit me right in the feels without warning. There is so much beauty in this story, I hardly know where to start. Boy Novak flees from her abusive father and runs away to make a life for herself. She marries a wealthy man, Arturo Whitman, who has the most beautiful daughter anyone has ever seen. Snow, with her sleek hair and white skin, is everybody’s darling. When Boy is pregnant with her first child, she starts both fearing and resenting Snow for taking up her grandparents’ attention, for drawing away from her own unborn child. When Bird, their baby girl, is born, Boy sends Snow away and manages to keep her away for years and years. Bird grows up without having ever seen her own sister. Until one day she discovers a letter…

The novel is structured in three parts. The first and last are told from Boy’s perspective, the second one from Bird’s. In some genius way, Helen Oyeyemi managed to make every single character believable and likeable. I fell in love with Boy on the first page, when she runs away from her rat-catcher father whose punishments were highly original but all the more disturbing.

The easier Boy’s life gets, the more focus she puts on beauty, on her own looks, the more she worries about what she will look like when she is old. She even spins a tale with her best friend (an aspiring journalist) about a magician – ostensibly – but really about women and beauty. Boy doesn’t scream her views and fears at you but they are undeniably there, visible just beneath everything she says and does. It makes for an intriguing character, to say the least.

boy snow bird3

During Bird’s part of the novel, I got really sucked in and didn’t put the book down until I finished. Because Bird, of course, is born with darker skin. The Whitmans are really African Americans with very light skin, passing for white. The moral implications of their actions are discussed but neither condemned nor praised. The author leaves it up to her readers to make up their own minds. My mind didn’t take long making up. If you have the choice between living a life as an equal, fairly treated, full person and a life where you tell the truth about your family lineage but where you aren’t allowed to eat in certain restaurants, buy in certain shops, go to certain places at all – I know what I would choose. But the discussion point is valid. Skin color is part of what makes the Whitmans themselves, and they have a dark-skinned sister hidden away to remind them – and they gave up that cultural identity for a more comfortable life.

In one of her letters to Bird, Snow writes about the part of the family that doesn’t pass for white:

Great-aunt Effie is like that. She thinks there are treasures that were within her reach, but her skin stole them from her. She shinks she could have been somebody. But she is somebody.

Have I mentioned at all that Bird and Snow develop a friendship via letters? When Bird finds a letter adressed to her (hidden away by her mother), she writes Snow on a whim, trying to get to know her far-away sister. She has seen pictures of Snow’s otherworldly beauty, of course, but instead of being jealous (Bird is very pretty herself) she asks intelligent questions. Like what is it like to be seen first and foremost as something beautiful? Did Snow sometimes wish she looked more average? And does Snow also sometimes not show up in mirrors?

Mirrors, while not as front and center as in the fairy tale, are important throughout the story and especially during a revelation at the end. I don’t spoil books so you can read on safely. Mirrors play a part, but I could never, ever have foreseen that ending.

I realise this review is getting long already but I haven’t even told you about the gorgeous, gorgeous writing yet. Helen Oyeyemi is an economical writer. She doesn’t embellish her sentences with a million little flourishes. Instead she finds the right words, puts them together, and they just work.

Possibly the most beautiful thing in this book were its characters. I said before that I liked Boy, Snow, and Bird – they are vastly different people with very different dreams and hopes and problems. But they each have agency. Something so many (even good) authors fail at, is writing good dialogue. Either we get the kind where every line spoken is of the utmost importance for the plot, or we get the sort of dialogue where people just talk and talk without saying much. Helen Oyeyemi finds the middle path. People sometimes just ramble, make up crazy stories with their friends, but within these ramblings they say something about themselves. Like Boy’s made-up story about the magician, it is not just a yarn spun with a friend, it is also a cloak she can put over her feelings so she doesn’t feel naked.

Boy’s decision to run away from home (“home” includes a childhood best friend she truly loves) and marry someone to be safe from her father reveals so much about her. As does her choice to bring Snow back home after years of separation, for the sake of her daughter Bird.

A week later Dad made another trip to Boston and brought me back a gift from Snow – a small, square, white birdcage with a broken door. I hung the cage from the ceiling and watched it swing, and I was happy.

Needless to say, I loved Boy, Snow, Bird with the passion of a thousand fangirls. I want a sequel and a movie and a ton of fanart. How many times can you read a fairy tale retelling of Snow White and fall in love with the princess and the evil queen at the same time, after all?

RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection

divider1If you want to dress like your favorite book cover, here’s an outfit to go with Boy, Snow, Bird (via styleblazer.com)

boy snow bird