Books

The Story of the Impossible Island

Helen Oyeyemi’s dark, rich fairy tale is both trick and treat.

A gingerbread house floating in the middle of the ocean.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Hill Street Studios/DigitalVision/Getty Images Plus; ShaunWilkinson/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

To read a Helen Oyeyemi novel is to willingly enter a tangled wood, where the paths wander and circle, and the way out isn’t always clear, but the scenery is full of an alarming and brilliant beauty. A one-time prodigy (the British daughter of Nigerian immigrants, she published her first novel, The Icarus Girl, in her teens), Oyeyemi has always been interested in how people, especially women, arrive at their identities, a journey shaped by relationships that define and, more often than not, confine them. The fairy tale is the native language of this theme: Its princesses, stepmothers, witches, and yes, even its princes and shoemakers, are facets of a single questing psyche. But while fairy tales have a sequestered inward-looking quality, Oyeyemi’s novels are wide-ranging. She browses the globe in search of motifs and milieus; her fiction has drawn on Yoruba legends, Emily Dickinson, Cuban folklore, American race relations, and ghost stories. She currently lives in Prague, and her splendid, witty new novel, Gingerbread, has a distinctive flavor of Mitteleuropa.

The novel centers on three women: schoolgirl Perdita Lee, her mother Harriet, and Harriet’s mother, Margot. They live in London, but only Perdita was born there. The novel begins as zippy domestic comedy, with Harriet wrangling her daughter’s adolescent moods and mounting a determined siege on the seemingly impenetrable clique that presides over the school’s PTA-like Parental Power Association. Multiracial, clever, charming—this bunch is a veritable “embodiment of Cool Britannia,” and Harriet wants in. She attempts to woo them with a Lee family specialty, gingerbread, a confection whose appeal is as fierce as it is addictive. One fan has told Harriet that eating the stuff is like eating revenge: “It’s like noshing on the actual and anatomical heart of somebody who scarred your beloved and thought they’d got away with it.” Harriet herself describes the perfect gingerbread as “a square meal and a good night’s sleep and a long, blood‐spattered howl at the moon rolled into one.”

Gingerbread has dominated the lives of the Lee women. As a child, Perdita craved it, insisting on eating nothing else, even as she wasted away. Margot put her foot down, a doctor was called in, and he found that Perdita was allergic to gluten. So now Harriet makes gingerbread with millet and buckwheat flour as well as the regular kind, recalling her salt-of-the-earth forebears, who used the recipe to make grains long past their prime taste palatable. To stop baking the stuff is unthinkable. Gingerbread abides. The Lee women always seem to be carrying around a box of it to offer to somebody they want to charm or curse.

Rudimentary symbolism is not a trademark of this tricksy novelist, but if the titular baked goods stand for anything, it’s a peasant sturdiness and determination to make something decent, even alluring, out of sparse or second-rate materials. Gingerbread is the irreducible truth of life made digestible. The Lees know how to use what they’ve got and how to make it last. These skills they picked up in the country where Margot and Harriet were born, Druhástrana. To Harriet’s dismay, Wikipedia describes her homeland as “an alleged nation state of indeterminable geographic location.” On maps, the spot where she knows it to be located shows only empty sea. It has even been proposed that Druhástrana is “a purely notional/mythical land,” given that stateless intellectuals sometimes like to claim Druhástranian citizenship for rhetorical purposes. Gingerbread includes citations from the entry, in a deliciously Borgesian flourish:

“I Belong to Druhástrana, Republic of Beauty,” by Guadeloupe Moreno, translated by Drahomíra Maszkeradi

“I Belong to Druhástrana, Republic of Freedom,” by Anele Ndaba

“I Belong to Druhástrana, Republic of Justice,” by Tansy Adams

“I Belong to Druhástrana, a Republic That Is Judging You All,” by Nimrod Tóth, translated by Drahomíra Maszkeradi

“Nimrod Tóth Does Indeed Belong to Druhástrana, a Republic of Breathtaking Hypocrisy,” by Simeon Vesik, translated by Drahomíra Maszkeradi

To Harriet, who grew up in one of Druhástrana’s hard-scrabble farming communities, the place is all too real. True, she doesn’t remember leaving since, due to the tremendous Druhástranian bureaucratic hurdles to emigration, she and her mother were (allegedly) smuggled out in trunks while rendered unconscious by a drug meant to make the experience less tortuous.

Yes, it all sounds pretty sketchy, but if you were going to make up a fantasy kingdom (or republic), it would surely be more pleasant than Druhástrana. When they lived there, the Lees and their fellow farmers—people who worked land that belonged to a rich urban family, the Kerchevals—grew “poorer and more dutiful” with each generation. “They didn’t know how to change anything. They only knew how to continue.” Not that they would want to change anything even if they knew how: “Ask any Druhástranian man or woman and he or she will admit this truth … the truth that he or she can find the strength to live out a lifetime under the most dire privations as long as there’s a chance, however irrational, that he or she could someday stumble upon some abundance that’s accompanied by the right to keep it all for himself.”

This might suggest a universal peasant-class mulishness, but Druhástrana is so cut off from the rest of the world because its populace, in a fit of anti-immigrant pique, passed an edict called the Great Referendum, which severed both formal and informal international relations. The Druhástranians wanted to eject all those confusing foreigners so that they could “keep things simple and concentrate on upholding financial inequality.” The national flag features three black griffins with their backs turned to the viewer. Any similarities to Oyeyemi’s own island homeland, the U.K., are clearly intentional.

Helen Oyeyemi.
Helen Oyeyemi.
Manchul Kim

The reader learns all of this after Harriet finally agrees to narrate the full history of her own youth in Druhástrana. This story takes up most of the novel’s middle section and relates how one of the landowning Kerchevals (a wickedly pointed portrait of a Lady Bountiful type who prefers dispensing charity to paying her workers a fair wage) arrived in Harriet’s village, tasted the legendary Lee family gingerbread, and was inspired to mass-produce the stuff. This involves whisking away all of the village’s female children, installing them in picturesque dormitories, dressing them up in petticoats and bonnets, and setting them to bake gingerbread and provide tours of what Harriet calls “an authenticity theme park.” Harriet only discovers the nefarious truth behind this scheme through the help of the landowner’s daughter, Gretel Kercheval, who first appears by climbing out of a well. Gretel may or may not be a fairy changeling, although given the fact that she has two pupils in each eye, she probably is.

Gretel was Harriet’s first real friend. But it’s a perilous Ferrante-esque sort of friendship, an all-consuming one, with an edge to it. This friendship, truncated when Harriet and Margot fled Druhástrana, is the real reason why Harriet hasn’t been able to make any other close friends: “She was saving herself for great amity that was on pause, that had not properly begun.” And her longing to reconnect with Gretel is the subterranean emotion that propels the novel’s plot. It will propel her, her mother, and her daughter, plus some miscellaneous Kerchevals, to an international search for three “absolutely, definitely not haunted” houses where a reunion with Gretel might be achieved. The third house can be visited only if the real estate agent’s “tracking team” succeeds in catching it. One of the few people who’s gotten close enough to this house to get a good look, a German hiker, reported that it looks just like a gingerbread house out of a story.

Oyeyemi’s point can sometimes seem as elusive as that house, but the charm evident on every page of this novel is enough to lure any reader through its twistier passages, and gradually the novel’s ideas emerge from the thicket of droll jokes, fantastical occurrences, and the occasional reference to Lady Gaga. Gingerbread, as Harriet sees it, is “both trick and treat,” the stuff that bonds between daughters and mothers are made of, as well as the bonds between childhood friends. It’s addictive, difficult, and sustaining all at once. A life without it is no life at all, and a denatured version made by farmer girls cut off from their roots and stuffed into dirndls provides no fit substitute. Druhástrana, far from being the elusive domain of beauty, freedom, and justice, may in fact be a republic of breathtaking hypocrisy. At any rate, it resembles the condition in which all too many people already live. If you cut yourself off from the rest of the world, Druhástrana’s example reminds those people (and nations), eventually you may just cease to exist at all.

The cover of Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi.

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