The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

This one was more difficult for me than Gingerbread was. Still intriguing, but more mysterious, more opaque. When we meet her, Jessamy Harrison, age 8, lives in England with her white English father and her black Nigerian mother. She struggles socially and in school, and feels most secure hiding in the dark. When her family moves for a time to Nigeria, to live with her mother’s father and extended family there, she makes her first friend: a girl apparently her own age, hiding out on the premises of the family compound. TillyTilly is an enigma, and insists that Jess ask no questions. When Jess’s family returns to England, TillyTilly finds a way to follow, and this is when things get weird.

I’ve seen The Icarus Girl labelled as a horror novel, which makes a certain amount of sense, but it doesn’t feel like its primary goal is to frighten me – frightening though it is, by the end. Instead, it feels chiefly concerned with Jessamy’s identity and her difficulty finding a home in a world that doesn’t make sense to her. She is scared most of the time, but mostly without reason, and more or less knows this doesn’t make sense. She is bullied at school, and reacts in rages or tantrums. She’s never had a friend, and neither of her parents knows how to relate to her. Therefore she’s ripe for the affections of a (perhaps equally strange) friend – her first ever! – to hold great influence.

There’s a fair amount of Yoruba culture and language baked into the novel’s themes. There are a lot of pairings and contrasts, first in Jessamy’s dual English/Nigerian heritage and racial/ethnic makeup, and the story’s back-and-forth travel between the two locations. I don’t want to give anything else away, but doubles are important.

I found Gingerbread more accessible, and more easy to enjoy. Certainly, this one offered more horror, and significantly less whimsy and humor. It kept my attention, though, and I have the distinct impression that there’s more going on in its layers than I’m equipped to grasp. Impressive? Yes.

I’m super curious about Oyeyemi’s other work.


Rating: 7 books.

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