A Modern Fairy Tale, or Not

Literature is a broad spectrum. It takes on various forms, some more perplexing than the others. Some are more complex than the others while some are more colorful than most. Some makes you jump into a rabbit hole that is a portal to a new world. Some makes you quotidian paths that many have walked on before. It takes no pure form but rather it expands and grows. With time, it changes, transforms and is altered by various influences that are within and without its very own.

Helen Oyeyemi tried to take on this ever changing form of literature through her latest latest novel, Gingerbread. Harriet Lee is a single mother who is raising her daughter, Perdita, in a cramped London apartment. A gifted teacher, Harriet was trying to earn her daughter’s acceptance. Her struggle with her daughter is coupled with her futile attempts to win over her fellow mothers in town.

The dynamics of Harriet and Perdita’s relationship started to change when Perdita begun showing interest in her mother’s homeland. Harriet initially shrugged it off. When an emergency made Harriet realize the seriousness of Perdita’s plunge into the past, In the form of a bedtime story, Harriet travels back to Druhástrana, a fictional country. Throughout Harriet’s story, one thing was apparent – the invisible hand that Harriet’s best friend, Gretel Kercheval, had in every change of fortune in her life.

“Her gingerbread keeps and keeps. It outlasts all daintier gifts. Flowers wilt and shed mottled petals, mold blooms greenish-white on chocolate truffles, and Harriet’s gingerbread hunkers down in its tin, no more attractive than the day it arrived, but no more repellent either.” ~ Helen Oyeyemi, Gingerbread

So how does the gingerbread pan out in the story? The Lee family passed down a gingerbread recipe for generations. During the lean times, the Lee’s gingerbread was the sole source of nourishment. When the Lees – Harriet and her mother Margot – migrated to London, they carried the secret recipe with them. What was once a mere source of nourishment slowly turned into a commercial success that changes the Lees’ life.

The story, however, goes beyond a mere gingerbread. With every turn of the page, relevant and timely subjects start to surface. There was a reference to cyber-bullying and online trolling and its impact to the younger mind. The story also dealt with social class issues and the dynamics of family life, especially in an uncertain period of shifting traditions, values, and mores. In a social setting, Gingerbread related the anguish of struggling to immerse in a society that constantly rejects us, of that yearning to belong.

Gingerbread is a lot of things, a concoction of sugar and spice and everything nice. Laden with fantasy, it had talking dolls, lullabies and magic wells, all merging to create a fairy-talish atmosphere. Cultural touchstones were beautifully inserted into the hems of the tapestry. Finely textured references to art and literature enriched the novel’s complexion. There were mentions of renowned literary works like Hansel and Gretel, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Parts-magical realism, parts-coming-of-age story, Gingerbread encompasses a large amount of ground. Druhástrana is an allegory of the peculiarities of our contemporary societies and governments. Oyeyemi underlined seminal points and explored interesting ideas apropos these subjects. At times, however, Oyeyemi’s exploration of these subjects tend to careen towards the form of a social commentary. The overzealous symbolism weighed down the impact of the satire, creating a fleeting impact.

“All that happens when you grow up is that your ethics get completely compromised and you do extremely dodgy things you never imagined doing, apparently for the sake of others. Plus, growing up isn’t in my job description.” ~ Helen Oyeyemi, Gingerbread

The novel’s main characters were well-thought out and developed. They carried with them intricate details which made them distinct. Harriet and Perdita seem like normal characters but there was an emotional distance created between them and the readers. The secondary characters also had a caricature vibe to them. The innumerable characters presented another challenge.

Oyeyemi’s prose was scintillating. Like a fairy tale, it had a dream-like quality. It had the right amount of fancy and reality. Her writing was one of the novel’s finer facets, one of its loftier accomplishments. Oyeyemi’s highly imaginative brand of fiction – the uncanny fusion of surrealism, fantasy and fairy tale – shone especially at the first part of the story. She drizzled her narrative with wit, humor and wordplay.

Reading the novel, however, was like navigating a maze, or a labyrinth even. As the narrative develops, it slowly unfurls how Oyeyemi’s ambitious brand of fiction was also the undoing of Gingerbread. The flowery and colorful writing gave so much to the imagination, but it also made the story wander. Just like Gretel in the original fairy tale, readers are forced to pick up crumbs. These crumbs, however, doesn’t lead you home or to the maze’s exit, rather, it meanders to several paths, further multiplying the feeling of being lost.

The abrupt shifts in timeline and the whimsical number of characters made the story droop at the seams. The ill-timed interjection of magical surrealism elements further confounded the story and muddled the plot. The story went off tangent and there was no clear path to follow. Whilst the first half was a pleasure with its whimsy and wit, the second half was a nightmare, a disjointed half. Reading the second half felt like a reading an entirely different work, leaving the first half open-ended. The dialogues were contrived and the conclusion was anticlimactic and unsatisfactory.

“Not some sham family, politely avoiding having to care about one another, but people who would share a surname and the task of weaving a collective meaning into that name. People would support and protect and staunchly cherish one another.” ~ Helen Oyeyemi, Gingerbread

In the grand scheme of things, Helen Oyeyemi tried to accomplish too much with very littleSome parts magical realism, some parts Medieval and Gothic, and some parts social commentary, it is a perplexing and abstract work that walks one path too many. Reading it was akin to finding one’s way through a labyrinth. The only saving grace was Oyeyemi’s prose. Her writing was lyrical and rich. Unfortunately, it didn’t help elevate or translate what could have been an enchanting tale of a flawed family in a dysfunctional society.

Ratings:

43%

Characters (30%) – 10%
Plot (30%) – 11%
Writing (25%) – 17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 5%

Admittedly, I am a stranger to Oyeyemi’s works. I first encountered her whilst researching for books to be released in 2019. Because of the hype surrounding it, I including Gingerbread in my 2019 Books I Look Forward To List. I was actually looking forward to the experience because she was an uncharted territory. Reading the book was another thing. It lacked focus and it deflated me. I was lost 90% of the time. I kept asking myself where the plot is leading to. Was it a re-imagined fairy tale? I am unsure.

Oyeyemi’s writing is another subject – it left so much to be desired. Gingerbread isn’t going to stop me from reading her other works. One thing is clear, however – I sure am going to keep my expectations low or on a realistic level at least.

Book Specs

Author: Helen Oyeyemi
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publishing Date: March 2019
Number of Pages: 258
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Fairy Tale

Synopsis

Perdita Lee may appear 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 bake. Londoners may find themselves able to take or leave it, but it’s very popular in Druhastrana, the faraway (or, according to many sources, nonexistent) land of Harriet Lee’s early youth. The world’s truest lover of the Lee family gingerbread, however, is Harriet’s charismatic childhood friend, Gretel – a figure who seems to have had a hand in everything (good or bad) that has happened to Harriet since they met.

Decades later, teenage Perdita’s search for her mother’s long-lost friend 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.

About the Author

Helen Olajumoke Oyeyemi was born on December 10, 1984 in Ibadan, Nigeria. She grew up in South of London where her family moved to when she was still young.

At the age of 18 and while studying at for her A-levels at Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, she wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl. It was published while she was studying  social and political sciences at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University. During her stay at the university, two of her plays, Juniper’s Whitening, and Victimese, were performed by her fellow students. Because of the critical acclaims both plays achieved, they were subsequently published by Methuen.

The Opposite House, Oyeyemi’s second novel, was published in 2007, followed two years later by White for Witching. The latter won the 2010 Somerset Maugham Award. Her other works are Mr. Fox (2011) and  Boy, Snow, Bird (2014). Her sixth novel and latest work, Gingerbread, was published in 2019. Oyeyemi also published a short story collection, What Is Yours Is Not Yours, in 2016.

Oyeyemi also received several recognition such as one of the women on Venus Zine’s 25 under 25 in 2009 and one of Granta Best of Young British Novelists List in 2013. She currently lives in Prague, Czech Republic.