Someone must have given Helen Oyeyemi a handful of magic beans when she was born in Nigeria because she’s been planting them ever since. This fantastical writer, who completed her first, acclaimed novel at the age of 18, sows her modern-day stories in the fertile ground of ancient myths and fables.
But Oyeyemi, now 34, isn’t just goosing old fairy tales with contemporary melodies. She’s drawn to what’s most unsettling about these fables: their disorienting logic, their blithe cruelty, their subtle encoding of race and gender. Nor is she in any way beholden to the source material she collects in the dark forest. No matter what characters she’s dealing with, she’s willing to cut off their tales with a carving knife.
Her new novel, “Gingerbread,” is a challenging, mind-bending exploration of class and female power heavily spiced with nutmeg and sweetened with molasses. If you think you know where you’re going in this forest, you’ll soon be lost. Oyeyemi has built her house out of something far more complex than candy.
The novel opens in contemporary London, where Harriet Lee, an immigrant, lives with her teenage daughter, Perdita. They own a large apartment so high that “climbing the staircases takes more than just walking up; it’s also necessary to spring, scramble and wriggle.” It’s such a challenge to reach them, in fact, that “princess in a tower syndrome sets in” — one of many fairy-tale allusions that should set off your inner Brothers Grimm. (The audiobook version of “Gingerbread” is the first novel that Oyeyemi has narrated herself, and the playful timbre of her own voice adds a delicious element to this tale. Listen to a sample.)
A few years ago, Oyeyemi told an interviewer, “I’m very interested in strange women, women who are for some reason not able to express emotion in a way that wins them friends.” Harriet Lee is such a character, kind and sympathetic, but guileless in the ways of social competition. She’s desperate to ingratiate herself with the snobs on the parents’ advisory committee at her daughter’s school. Her only special skill is making gingerbread from a recipe passed down through her family for generations. But don’t think of that spice cake from a Pillsbury mix or those cookie-cutter men. One of Harriet’s addicted fans tells her that “eating her gingerbread is like eating revenge” — and who could resist that?
Unfortunately, Harriet’s daughter must resist. Born with celiac disease, Perdita almost died from gorging on gingerbread as a toddler. So years later when Harriet comes home one evening and finds her teenager in a coma surrounded by fresh gingerbread, she knows something is horribly wrong.
So far, most of this makes a certain kind of sense, or at least enough sense to nervously ignore the nonsensical asides, obscure references and non sequiturs. (Wait — are Perdita’s dolls really talking?) But once Harriet’s sleeping beauty wakes up in the hospital and begs her mother to reveal the secret of their family’s past, the dimensions of this novel start to bend in surreal ways. The narrator explains that Harriet has “the kind of past that makes the present dubious. Talking or thinking about ‘there’ lends ‘here’ a hallucinatory quality that she could frankly do without. Pull the thread too hard and both skeins unravel simultaneously.”
Get ready for some heady tangles.
The bulk of the novel is Harriet, sitting alongside her daughter’s hospital bed, spinning the long story of her own childhood in an isolated nation called Druhástrana, which, we’re told, many scholars do not believe exists. Digging around on my own, I discovered that “druhá strana” literally means “the other side” in Slovak, and it’s also the name of a Slovakian rap group that released an album called “Cinderella” in 2004, but you won’t learn any of that from Oyeyemi, and, like so many of the allusions in this dizzying story, it may or may not be relevant.
Harriet grew up in a poor Druhástrana village near a giant shoe, “a relic from the days of giants.” Her only entertainment was reading the novels of Émile Zola, which, even in French, would probably be easier for me to follow than this story.
Just to give you a taste: One day, Harriet drops a package of gingerbread down a well where a girl named Gretel is hiding because she recently threw another girl farther down the well. Harriet and Gretel become fast friends, and Harriet is sent away to work at a gingerbread theme park owned by Gretel’s miserly mother. The theme park is staffed entirely by “100 percent genuine farmstead girls,” who are paid in fake money, fed gruel and kept in a state of perennial nausea. Trained to excite male clients with their untouchable pubescent sexuality, the “Gingerbread Girls” are admonished to move as much of their product as they possibly can — “like the Little Matchstick Girl,” Oyeyemi explains, “but with gingerbread.” Naturally, this relentless competition, combined with the effects of grueling privation, turns some of these imprisoned girls against each other. “We’re going to start carrying gingerbread shivs,” Harriet says.
If you’ve read this far, Help — I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole and can’t get up.
Anyone who resists Oyeyemi’s absurdism will find “Gingerbread” a very bitter meal, indeed. A fan of Aimee Bender, Oyeyemi works in an adjacent realm of dreams where things simultaneously make perfect sense and no sense at all. What’s always clear, though, is Oyeyemi’s wit, often tossed off in satirical asides — sometimes silly, sometimes sharply political. Perdita, for instance, gives her mother a smile of such calculated purity that “Tyra Banks would be proud.” Meanwhile, the citizens of Druhástrana reject all foreign ideals so that they can “keep things simple and concentrate on upholding financial inequality.”
Maybe we know where Druhástrana is, after all. We just have to follow Oyeyemi’s bread crumbs back to ourselves.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
On March 18 at 7 p.m., Helen Oyeyemi will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.
By Helen Oyeyemi
Riverhead. 258 pp. $27
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