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Sui Generis: Helen Oyeyemi’s “Gingerbread”

IS THERE AN AUTHOR working today who is comparable to Helen Oyeyemi? She might be the only contemporary author for whom it’s not hyperbole to claim she’s sui generis, and I don’t think it’s a stretch either to say she’s a genius, as opposed to talented or newsworthy or relevant or accomplished, each of her novels daring more in storytelling than the one before. After reading any of her novels or her short story collection, you emerge as if from a dream, your sense of how things work pleasurably put out of order. If we read procedurals to enjoy a sense of order restored, everything put it in its place, we read Oyeyemi for the opposite reason, yet she is no less suspenseful.

Oyeyemi’s seventh book, Gingerbread, is an uncanny novel that opens: “Harriet Lee’s gingerbread is not comfort food. There’s no nostalgia baked into it, no hearkening back to innocent indulgences and jolly times at nursery. It is not humble, nor is it dusty in the crumb.” In the novel, gingerbread serves as both family heirloom and metaphor. It’s what lasts over time (“[it] keeps and keeps. It outlasts all daintier gifts”), over more than three generations of women. But in spite of a lasting foundational image, the novel shows its promise to be unsettling, rather than comforting.

Harriet is 34 and “has a slight Druhástranian accent that she downplays so as not to get exoticized.” According to a fictional Wikipedia entry in the novel, Druhástrana (meaning the “other side” in Slovak) is “an alleged nation state of indeterminable geographic location.” It’s not entirely clear whether Druhástrana, a.k.a. “The Other Side,” is truly a mythical land, or perhaps death, or a land of fairy tales, or simply childhood personified. Perhaps all of these: its borders are closed, no passports are to be had, and you cross over via gingerbread.

Harriet bakes loads of gingerbread from a family recipe. The gingerbread recipe has a wild history. It came down through the paternal line, and was originally conceived by Harriet’s great-great-great-grandmother, a woman who saved her spouse from a public hanging by agreeing to marry him and to handle his rehabilitation. In a charming anecdote that exemplifies the fairy-tale quality of this novel’s digressions and turns, the narrator explains that in their time, a hangman would take a shot at matchmaking before making someone climb on the beam for a public execution. If somebody in the crowd stepped forward and took responsibility for your rehabilitation, you’d be married immediately.

The narrator quips, “[P]ublic executions occupied a space in Harriet’s great-great-great-grandmother’s life not dissimilar to the blind dating and speed dating of today. Plenty of opportunity for a realist who has some idea of what she’s looking for.” Harriet’s ancestors took care of a farm and raised grains. Harriet’s daughter Perdita loves gingerbread, but when Perdita is six-years-old, Harriet and Margo realize it makes her sick. She has a gluten allergy.

The novel is initially a little slow to action, caught up in its world-building, but picks up the pace when Perdita seems to commit suicide by gingerbread. Later, we learn she wasn’t exactly in a coma; she took a trip to Druhástrana, where Harriet grew up. Druhástrana here appears to be a reference to death, and perhaps also to dreaming, to loss of consciousness, to what’s not here. When Perdita eats the gingerbread, she seems to have killed herself. She loses consciousness. And yet, when she awakens, she’s been somewhere, the specific place her mother is from. She was searching for Harriet’s childhood friend Gretel Kercheval on the other side. Harriet tells Perdita and her dolls the story of her childhood in Druhástrana and how she became friends with Gretel Kercheval, a changeling she found at the bottom of a well, also a friend who’d asked Harriet where they should meet when Harriet grew up.

Gretel’s mother, Clio Kercheval, is the owner of the farmland where Harriet’s parents live, and she proposes turning the Lee family’s gingerbread into a commercial product. She explains: “In fact, gingerbread was an ideal vehicle for returning its consumers to a certain moment in their lives, a time before right and wrong. And the key selling point would be that the gingerbread was produced by 100 percent genuine farmstead girls, raised among the very wheat that went into it.” The farmstead girls appear to be filled with home-baked goodness, but like many other things in the novel, this is an illusion — they look one way, but are actually another.

Gingerbread is a Rubik’s Cube of a book, with all the frustration and delight that that toy entails. You have to stay in a very strange headspace, but like Oyeyemi’s other novels, it’s a tale that bears multiple rereadings and is more marvelous the deeper you’re willing to dive into its rearranging of reality, its derangement. The derangement of most of Helen Oyeyemi’s fiction is precisely why some of us love it. Her self-aware prose unhinges us from reality, and in detaching us, extricating us from our immediate, tangible world, and the logic of our bodies, she truly generates her own reality, a different sense of embodiment, or perhaps a form of being, a derangement that’s not visceral, but wholly imaginative and story-based instead. Much of Gingerbread’s beauty is found in eccentric, yet oddly dream-meaningful word pairings and images. This is a world of gingerbread addicts, soot figures, dolls with questions at bedtime, a wooden clog the size of a caravel.

Oyeyemi’s affinity for derangement was put to its most beautiful effect in Mr. Fox (I’d say her best novels are still Mr. Fox and Boy, Snow, Bird). In Gingerbread, the loosening of reality and referents from language may be at its most extreme yet. It’s a novel that’s difficult to follow both at a sentence level and narratively, but its challenging stories come to an incredibly satisfying conclusion. In many ways, the book is one of her finest, since the form of the sentences, the paragraphs, and the novel as a whole, follow the subject matter of the primary story, a story about the lasting, timeless, shape-shifting nature of friendship and family.

Causality is hardwired into the way we think: “If this, then that.” Much of fiction gains power from our desire to achieve pleasure by seeing cause and effect — we want to know what happens next, we want to know the “then that.” The frankly bizarre power of Gingerbread is that the premises, the details that build up its fictional world in our minds, do not necessarily lead to the sorts of conclusions we would expect, certainly not from literary realism, but perhaps not from fabulism or magic realism either. And our expectations can be upended even within single sentences.

For example, early on a gingerbread addict describes Harriet’s gingerbread as similar to “noshing on the actual and anatomical heart of somebody who scarred your beloved and thought they’d got away with it.” Buried inside this single sentence is a huge story, a story of revenge, a story that leaves you asking questions and wanting answers. This is characteristic Oyeyemi, to write magnificent confident sentences that are left completely unpacked, sentences in which no further explanation is given. We are always breathless under the spell of Oyeyemi’s nested storytelling; the reader who reads for comfort will never find it here, but must seek it elsewhere. And if that sentence-long tale of revenge is not enough, the addict adds, not answers to our questions, but instead this gorgeous tangent: “That heart, ground to ash and shot through with darts of heat, salt, spice, and sulfurous syrup, as if honey was measured out, set ablaze and trickled through the dough, along with the liquefied spoon.” There’s something both sensual and cerebral here, the suggestion of cooking, but no kind of cooking we’d ever do in real life, a cooking that involves heating and liquefying — transmogrifying — an instrument of cooking itself: the spoon.

Gingerbread is, at one point, described as both “trick and treat.” Perdita asks Harriet, How did you get here? Harriet thinks she and Margo have 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.” One of Oyeyemi’s signature moves, a move that reaches back to her early novels, is to comment on duality or doubleness, the “here” and the “there.” Her debut novel, The Icarus Girl, revolved around TillyTilly, the protagonist’s malevolent ghost double and playmate (and White Is for Witching also features twins). In The Opposite House, the narrator Maja notes a doubleness of logic: “Sometimes there are things that you need to say and you know that the right person to say them to is the person whose logic works two ways; the person who can sit through Mass without staring sardonically at the boy in the dress who waves incense in their face.” Every opposite has its equal. Every statement can be read another way.

In the Yoruba belief system, twins hold a special status, but there’s typically a Gothic complexity in Oyeyemi’s use of twinship or two-facedness or doubleness that extends beyond traditional belief into an alternate language of its own. Gretel Kercheval in Gingerbread is almost a call back to the double in Oyeyemi’s earlier books, but she doesn’t carry the same darkness. She’s a girl with two pupils in each eye, and she serves as a kind of savior. Her presence lends an effervescent interrogative quality to the novel, closer perhaps to Mary in Mr. Fox than TillyTilly in the dark, sad The Icarus Girl. It’s as if Oyeyemi is grab-bagging tricks from all her other books, playing with their effects to unscrew Gingerbread from reality, trying to see just how far off the cliff we’re willing to be carried by this book. A reader senses the author stretching sentences, stretching our belief, and asking, So can I get away with removing this screw? How about this this one?

Yet, it’s not all derangement in Oyeyemi’s latest. The whole book contradicts its own claim that “[h]ouses are houses and biscuits are biscuits and people are people and we all know nothing good comes of relaxing boundaries such as these.” Something quite marvelous can come from relaxing boundaries. There is a surprise at the end of Gingerbread, a kind of glorious and satisfying surprise that makes perfect sense. The novel proves to be both trick and treat, like gingerbread, true to its title.

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Anita Felicelli is the author of Love Songs for a Lost Continent, forthcoming in October 2018. She has contributed essays and reviews to The New York Times (“Modern Love”), the San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, and elsewhere.

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