Between Worlds

(Detail From The Book Jacket)
Reviewed by Heather Hewett
Sunday, July 3, 2005


By Helen Oyeyemi. Doubleday. 335 pp. $23.95

The story of Helen Oyeyemi's rise to fame is hard to resist: A Nigerian-born British high school student tells her parents she's working on an essay (a really, really long essay), while in actuality she's writing a novel; and then she sells the rights in 17 countries. All this by age 19. A reviewer begins to worry that the book can't possibly be worth all the hype, that this is the publishing industry at its worst, relentlessly searching for novelty and youth and ruthlessly capitalizing on an extraordinary story in order to sell copies. That perception may be true of publishing, but The Icarus Girl is worth the attention. Oyeyemi is a promising if not fully developed talent, and her debut novel provides evidence of a vivid imagination capable of moving freely between cultures and continents.

Set in England and Nigeria, The Icarus Girl fuses a familiar story of migration and cultural displacement with a gripping undertow of horror reminiscent of Stephen King. The daughter of a Nigerian mother and a British father, 8-year-old Jessamy Wuraola Harrison lives in Crankbrook, England. Bookish by nature and prone to screaming fits and tantrums, Jess is shunned by her peers at school and loved but misunderstood at home. During a family visit with her mother's relations in Nigeria, she meets an odd, barefoot girl with bushy hair and a winning smile who quickly becomes her only friend. TillyTilly, as Jess affectionately names her, makes unexpected appearances and leads Jess into forbidden territory -- her grandfather's locked study, a closed amusement park -- when no one is looking. Captivated by her mischievous and mysterious friend, Jess feels even lonelier when she returns to England.

But then TillyTilly shows up at her back door, and as her friend's antics become even more astonishing Jess is forced to ask some questions: Where does TillyTilly live? Why can she and TillyTilly walk right into a neighbor's kitchen without anyone seeing them? How does her friend suddenly appear upstairs at her house, and how does she pull Jess down and through the staircase, right in front of the babysitter? With each new, inexplicable feat, Jess finds herself increasingly enmeshed with her capricious and intimidating friend. As the story gains momentum, Oyeyemi unveils the full extent of TillyTilly's powers.

The Icarus Girl is a haunting and suspense-filled story. Written in the third person, its narrative stance closely aligned with the protagonist's, the novel presents events from the point of view of an 8-year-old who still lives in a world of fairy tales and children's fantasy novels. But the author also makes use of the first person, frequently dipping into Jess's consciousness. This strategy has mixed results. On the one hand, it enables Oyeyemi to draw on the immediacy of Jess's thoughts, allowing her to capture the moody voice of little-girlhood: "Because it all started in Nigeria, where it was hot, and, although she didn't realise this until much later, the way she felt might have been only a phase, and she might have got better if only (oh, if only if only if ONLY, Mummy) she hadn't gone."

On the other hand, at times I wanted less intimacy and more distance. For while the story is fully attuned to the world of children, it's slightly fuzzy when it comes to adults. Take Jess's mother: Viewed through the eyes of a child, Sarah Harrison's motivations remain murky, and this perspective threatens to turn her into the stereotypical bad mother, ultimately responsible for her daughter's predicament. A judicious use of narrative distance might have shed some light on Sarah, just as it might have helped to place the entire story within the long, complex history of African migration.

Like The Famished Road , Ben Okri's 1991 Booker Prize-winning novel, The Icarus Girl plays with narrative and myth, particularly Yoruba mythologies surrounding twins, spirit children and the powerful intersections between the material and supernatural realms. Oyeyemi's inventive exploration of these connections takes a decidedly creepy turn as TillyTilly begins to resemble a Poe-esque doppelgänger. The Icarus Girl relishes the possibilities presented by the "three worlds" -- this world, the spirit world and the "Bush" of the imagination -- and it does not shy from unpleasant outcomes. Nor does it shrink from exploring how children can suffer from the deep pain incurred when moving between cultures. This bold curiosity bodes well not only for Oyeyemi's career as a writer, but also for the future of British literature. ·

Heather Hewett is a freelance writer in New York City.

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