Oyeyemi has a singular boldness of style, which means that her mash-up of Shakespeare and fairytale with references to Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Jerry Springer Show is never less than energetic; she brings in Brexit, too, with passing references to Druhástrana’s past glories and present isolationism. But style and story fail to meet. Reworking folktale is hard, in part because these old stories have vast, windy spaces where novels have character and motivation. “Once upon a time there was a great king” – that will do to kick off your folktale. Something more is required in a novel... Oyeyemi is a writer of wit and courage, qualities that ensure she will continue to build her own dreams, unfettered by the constraints of genre, unbounded by the plain old mortal world.
Oyeyemi’s great skill is to interleave and interweave the fantastical and the political. In this respect, she is akin to writers such as Téa Obreht, Jenni Fagan and Naomi Alderman, who manage to make the eerie and the urgent close. Gingerbread is at one and the same time – like the double eyes – a reworking of fable and an incisive look at class, migration, exclusion and loss. Rather as in her novel The Opposite House, Oyeyemi plays with the ghostly to reveal the ghastly. The two most famous gingerbread stories are Hansel and Gretel – where a sugary, gilded place turns out to be dangerous – and the Gingerbread Man. One is a story about the danger of a fixed, ideal home, the other about the danger of fleeing. It is to Oyeyemi’s credit that she balances these contradictions with such poise. Harriet’s life in the shifty Druhástrana involves being a “gingerbread girl” and the narrative is ambiguous about what these girls from the country actually do in their opulent surroundings, a place which seems to be both factory and bordello. By not being specific, Oyeyemi lets the reader’s imagination play an equal part in the story.
Oyeyemi’s fiction, from her debut novel The Icarus Girl, through White is for Witching, The Opposite House and Mr Fox, is as restless and self-delighting as Gingerbread’s disturbingly conversational dolls. One of its joys is that it is not necessarily emblematic of anything other than itself... Her plots – such as they are – are dizzying, and somewhat overwhelming: one doesn’t simply read her books but actively submits to them. If her works have a common theme it is doubleness and the “other”, often imbued with the traditional Yoruba (from south-western Nigeria) fascination with twins and the reincarnation of the soul... “It’s a bit far-fetched” as the dolls point out, and a times Oyeyemi’s characters cannot keep pace with her luscious imagery. Yet Gingerbread is also grounded in the here and now and is spikily funny, referencing Tinder, Amazon reviews, Skype and Ariana Grande as well as conjuring a breathtaking fantasy landscape somewhere between Don Quixote and Alice in Wonderland.
Though Helen Oyeyemi’s sixth novel, Gingerbread, is far from a novel for children, it is steeped in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm, Roald Dahl, L. Frank Baum, even Lemony Snicket. But this being the work of Oyeyemi, these initial influences are soon turned inside out, reimagined and repurposed by one of our most singular and inventive contemporary voices...the dramatic punches all land, the love between Harriet and Perdita is beautifully rendered, and Oyeyemi’s sentences continually sparkle with viciously precise humour. Uneven it might be, but Gingerbread is delicious
Talking dolls, rearranging houses and, tantalisingly, fleeting references to Brexit, #MeToo and the generational divide are all thrown into the mix with abandon. I longed for a hinted-at satire on these last elements to develop.
But, alas, here Oyeyemi seems to be relying on sheer velocity and glorious, unabashed weirdness — as opposed to a coherent plot — to propel us through.
Fans of Oyeyemi’s highly acclaimed novel “Boy, Snow, Bird” or her story collection, “What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours,” will expect an electric, genre-defying style, and won’t be disappointed. New readers should prepare to be dizzied.
At its simplest, “Gingerbread” is about family — Harriet tells her daughter her origin story, how Harriet came to England with her own mother from the magical but flawed country of Druhástrana, and how they struggled to survive and create a new home for themselves...
Gingerbread” is jarring, funny, surprising, unsettling, disorienting and rewarding. It requires the reader to be quick-footed and alert. And by the end, it is clear what has grounded the story from the start — the tender and troubling humanity of its characters.
There is much play here on the sinister and the sweet, and on the interaction of home and cruelty in tales of gingerbread homes and gingerbread people. The sly elegance and surrealism of Oyeyemi’s writing weave a spell around a story that once again concerns adolescent wounds, misplaced love and family lies... As the novel progresses, Oyeyemi’s charm too often turns into archness, while the aspect of the fairy tale that is crucial, narrative propulsion, gets lost. The characters become wispy and the story confusing. There is richness and humour here, but ultimately the book is half-baked.
Gingerbread, the sixth novel by the Nigeria-born, London-raised, Prague-dwelling novelist Helen Oyeyemi, is a rich, clever, rueful and sometimes maddening work. Lively and playful, it boasts more tangents and asides than Tristram Shandy. It has strong magical realist notes, drawing on elements of folklore and fairy tale and its broad sphere of reference takes in Emilys Dickinson and Brontë, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Emile Zola, Jerry Springer, fado music and Stormzy...Gingerbread requires careful reading and re-reading. At times it made this reader feel foolish and stodgy for wanting something as mundane as a foothold. Oyeyemi has said that she admires Borges’ line about the way writing should affirm the hallucinatory nature of reality. She’s not kidding.
Oyeyemi’s prose can also be hard going. Ali Smith has praised her previously as “a writer of sentences so elegant that they gleam” and certainly, as with much of Smith’s work, readers who surrender themselves to Oyeyemi’s surprising turn of phrase will probably gain more from her writing than those who allow themselves to be discombobulated by non-sequiturs. Many readers will nonetheless also end up quite lost and I’m not sure the blame lies with them...Oyeyemi’s inventiveness cannot be discounted but one only wishes it had been channelled to more coherent and satisfying purpose.