Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

9781594634659

How does everything Helen Oyeyemi touches turn to gold? Her writing follows some fairy tale logic that meanders off the road, yet never leads you astray. I was smitten with Boy, Snow, Bird and White Is For Witching. I was beyond enchanted by the stories in What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. And I keep coming back for more, an addict, forever surprised by a writer who refuses to get comfortable in any of the nice neat categories that I create in my head.

Here’s the thing about Gingerbread: you’ve got to read it for style, for character, for the shining observations that dazzle throughout. Don’t go in looking for the sort of plot that makes you think “oh, of course!” as you contentedly turn the last page. Suspend your disbelief. In fact, just toss your disbelief into the air, let it hover, and forget about it entirely.

Oyeyemi’s worlds are very like our own, rife with everyday things like London, PTA meetings, and drunk voicemails. But there’s also the hard-to-pin-down (but very real) country of Druhástrana, changeling children hanging out in wells, and houses built by industrious fireflies. Don’t ask me how a book can so charmingly accommodate descriptions of child labor exploitation all the while a sweetly sinister friendship unfolds. In Helen Oyeyemi’s capable hands, you can go from a simmering rage about injustice to delight at a turn of phrase within a sentence or two. I think she may be a wizard of some kind, a warmer Herr Drosselmeyer who has perfect control over the whole stage even when the set feels larger (or smaller) than life.

I realize I’ve not given a proper description of what Gingerbread is actually about, and to be frank I don’t think I’m up for the task. It’s about mothers and daughters and granddaughters, about farms and cities, about extended families doing good deeds for bad reasons. It starts in England, where Harriet’s daughter Perdita has eaten an unusual batch of gingerbread and goes into a coma, supposedly trying to find the country where her mother and grandmother grew up. We then get to witness a friendship form between two young Druhástranian girls, one of whom’s mother happens to own the gingerbread factory where the other toils away.  And then there’s the Kerchevals back in England again, the extremely rich family of dubious origins who take in Harriet and her mother with far-reaching consequences. Margot and Harriet and Perdita are subjected to bullying, heartbreak, betrayals, and poverty. They revel in beautiful spaces and form unbreakable bonds. And all the while there’s gingerbread, gingerbread, gingerbread: in tins in London, in the Kercheval’s kitchen at three am, in Druhá city boutiques and way back in Margot’s old farmhouse.

A gingerbread addict once told Harriet that eating her gingerbread is like eating revenge.

This is not a revenge story, but neither is it a love story, or the sort of allegory aimed to smash you over the head. It’s a fairy tale and a contemporary novel and something so much more delicious than either. I don’t know, they should invent a new genre for whatever Helen Oyeyemi does. She does it very well indeed.

Star Ratings

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing : ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)