Book review: Gingerbread, by Helen Oyeyemi

At the beginning of this startling novel the main narrator, Harriet Lee, imagines all the other iterations and bearers of her name – Harriet Li, Harriet Leigh, Harriet Lee, the Essex Princess and the rude sales assistant, the naval officer and the psychoanalyst. It is a kind of miniature of what to expect. Helen Oyeyemi’s work has always prioritised the slippery and the metamorphic, the weird changeability of things. What makes our Harriet Leigh unique, it seems, is her delicious gingerbread.

Detail from the cover of Gingerbread, by Helen Oyeyemi

The novel is a triptych in form. We start with Harriet discovering that her gluten-allergic daughter Perdita (a reference, I assume, to the etymology of the name: the Vulgar Latin perdita meaning “lost”) has rashly eaten the gingerbread and is comatose. Harriet’s mother, Margot, had already warned her daughter that Perdita seemed affected by the toothsome morsels. Harriet speaks to her intermittently aware daughter, alongside four dolls around her bed that act as a kind of inquisitive chorus, about her upbringing on the island of Druhástrana, a place which not even Wikipedia is sure is real, and her subsequent flight to England.

Nested in this narrative is the collision between Harriet and Gretel Kercheval, a girl with two pupils in each eye who may be a spirit in a well who begged for some gingerbread. In England, the Lee family is taken under the wing of the massively dysfunctional and successful Kercheval family, and at the end, Perdita organises an odyssey to reunite Harriet and Gretel. Yes, there is a Hansel and a greedy fox in this as well. It even has its own sleeping beauty and a rather neat twist about her somnolence.

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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. “Trickery occurs all the time, all the time…” thinks Harriet, “people exchange fake money for things of genuine value, people spend their life savings on lies”.

Druhástrana doesn’t seem to exist because it has had a referendum and has become “cut off from the rest of the world”. It also tolerates inequality because that means the possibility of random luck. Like all the best fables, this is both mirror and mirage, a version of an island nation riven by divides no-one quite understands and where privacy seems to be the prime virtue.

It seems significant that one of the few foreign authors that Harriet reads while in her birthplace is Émile Zola. It’s an odd call-out, given that Zola is the epitome of realism in a book which is dashing and flagrant in its surrealism. Yet the concerns are similar. Despite its flamboyance and occasionally coy style, this is a novel about poverty, exploitation, the arid lives of the wealthy and the desperate lives of the disadvantaged. It is also, at points, very funny, especially in the scenes satirising the local PPA – Parent Power Association – skewering a certain middle class myopia.

The final section deals most explicitly with what family means, what obligations are due to family and whether a new version of family might be possible. The fact that parts of this are organised by a “Miss Maszkeradi” probably reveals the masquerade that has been going on all the way through the book. It ends with an optimism of sorts, a things-will-sort-themselves-out kind of ending. Throughout the novel Harriet has been struggling to realise when she will grow up, and the closure in that way is satisfying. The dolls stop speaking and the child starts.

There is a little wink that delighted me. When Harriet is working as a gingerbread girl, she compares some crockery to Turkish delight, the very confection that Edmund was tempted with in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. Gingerbread can be as dangerous, and bring its own witches. But the love plot between Harriet and one of the Kerchevals is what will stay with me, since despite the phantasmagoria and myth-i-ness, it reads as absolutely true.

Gingerbread, by Helen Oyeyemi, Picador, £16.99