Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi’s reputation is stellar, and her backlist is healthy: six novels besides this one and a story collection, and she’s just 36. (Wow.) With this, my first of her books, I’m adding my voice to the chorus. Oyeyemi is a prodigious talent.

Gingerbread is under 300 pages, but I’m still a little intimidated by the task of saying what all is in it. There are three generations of women in our story from the start, and they remain our focus. Margot Lee, her daughter Harriet, and Harriet’s daughter Perdita make up a very close family, and the titular gingerbread is a family recipe with magical powers, apparently – but literally, or figuratively speaking? They live in London, but Margot and Harriet come originally from a country called Druhástrana, where Perdita has never visited. [I was immediately intrigued by the name Perdita: this word in Latin means lost; it is the name of a moon of Uranus; and it is the name of the heroine of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Which of these undertones is intended or instructive here? Maybe all of them.] “Several prominent thinkers have proposed reclassifying Druhástrana as a purely notional/mythical land”; at any rate, it is unclear how one would get there, or from there to here.

There are magical elements sprinkled throughout, in a book that is mostly realistic; just enough magic, then, to keep me a bit off balance in my reading of this world. Perdita has four dolls that speak (and not just to her); they are like her chorus, in the classical Greek sense. The Lee family gingerbread has powers, certainly. Druhástrana is a land of rather more magic: “She’d seen some plant-vertebrate combinations in the clearings, glassy gazing dormice and owls that earth had risen up around; the ground was growing them, and they looked uncomfortable, as if they’d been stretched and stuffed with straw. There was a leaf that people chewed for relief from pain, and the girl brought this leaf to the plant-vertebrate combinations when she had time; it seemed to make things a bit better for them.” Another girl “had two pupils in each eye; that’s why her eyes looked like bottomless lakes in the torchlight.”

Perdita, being a remarkable 17-year-old, manages a rather extreme act in search of her motherland. As she lays in bed recuperating from this adventure, Harriet sits with her (and her four speaking dolls) and tells the story of her own – Harriet’s – childhood and coming of age. This is the story of growing up in Druhástrana, the legacy of the gingerbread, and Perdita’s heretofore unknown paternity; it’s a story of families and class distinctions, and it takes up the bulk of the novel, right up until the story told at Perdita’s bedside moves into the present, when they get up and go continue to live it.

I love these characters: strong women with strong senses of humor and independence, and wise one-liners. “Everybody around her was living out a different story in which events had different causes and motivations according to how they were perceived.” “Life isn’t ill-natured; it’s just dirt poor, like any other public resource.” Harriet’s anxieties about the intimidating, insular Parental Power Association (what Perdita’s school has in place of a Parent Teacher Association) and its social structure are priceless, hilarious, and relatable.

I’m a sucker for a blend of realism with a few key points of wild unreality, which we find here, and I fell hard for Margot, Harriet, and Perdita. There is a real satisfaction to this novel’s ending, even if it doesn’t tie up all loose ends. I’m definitely in for more from Oyeyemi.


Rating: 8 powders.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: