Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi: A review

Reading Helen Oyeyemi's latest book is a bit like looking at the mirrors at a carnival where everything is distorted and you can never be quite sure what you are seeing. Is this science fiction? Social commentary? Satire? A fairy tale? Magical realism? All of the above? Oyeyemi keeps the reader guessing and, frankly, I was never quite sure. 

One thing I am sure of is that this novel requires the reader's strict attention to every sentence. If one's attention wanders, as mine did midway through the book, one is quickly lost and must regroup to find one's way again.

So, what is this book actually about? Well, at its root, it is about a family of women: Margot, the grandmother; Harriet, the mother; and Perdita, the daughter. There are ancillary characters, the fathers and other relatives, friends, and those who exploit the women, but, mainly, it is the story of these three women.

The story begins in the magical country of Druhástrana. Where is this country? Well, it is magic so the location doesn't really matter, but the natives of the country are black, so perhaps it is intended to be in Africa. It is a land where the peasants are virtual slaves to callous landowners who are never satisfied with their efforts. It is in Druhástrana that the recipe for gingerbread is perfected. It is spicy and addictive and life-sustaining. 

In time, Margot and Harriet make their way to England where Margot eventually becomes a successful entrepreneur and Harriet continues to bake her gingerbread and gives birth to Perdita. This part of the book conveys much about what it is like to leave a homeland and try to find a new community and a place for oneself in a foreign land. Much of the novel revolves around Harriet telling her origin story to her daughter after Perdita suffers a near-death experience and must learn to communicate again. It's an origin story that might have been written by Lewis Carroll.  

This is a head-spinning tale of imagination. I find it almost impossible to adequately describe, possibly because I'm not really sure I have fully understood it. I give the writer full marks for the intelligence it took to put this plot together and the wild imagination it took to conceive of it. But if the aim of the writer is to be understood, that is a bit more problematic.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 

Comments

  1. I read Boy Snow Bird by this author and despite any disorientation I felt, I loved her writing. I have this one on my TBR list for this year. Nice review!

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    Replies
    1. Her writing does tend to leave you grasping for something solid to hold onto, but I'm finding that the more I think about this book the better I like it.

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  2. Perhaps it was just an origin story, with the rest being extra bonus (i.e. the setting, the timeframe, the ancillary characters). It sounds challenging though. Maybe it was all those things or none of them. :-)

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    Replies
    1. It was a challenging but ultimately fascinating read.

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