Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi
Published by: Picador(Pan Macmillan)
Release Date: March 2019
Source: Publisher (Review Copy)
Perdita Lee may appear your average British schoolgirl; Harriet Lee may seem just a working mother trying to penetrate the school social hierarchy; but there are signs that they might not be as normal as they think they are.
For one thing, they share a gold-painted, seventh-floor flat with some surprisingly verbal vegetation. And then there’s the gingerbread they make. Londoners may find themselves able to take or leave it, but it’s very popular in Druhástrana, the far-away (and, according to Wikipedia, non-existent) land of Harriet Lee’s early youth.
In fact, the world’s truest lover of the Lee family gingerbread is Harriet’s charismatic childhood friend, Gretel Kercheval – a figure who seems to have had a hand in everything (good or bad) that has happened to Harriet since they met.
Years later, when teenaged Perdita sets out to find her mother’s long-lost friend, it prompts a new telling of Harriet’s story, as well as a reunion or two. As the book follows the Lees through encounters with jealousy, ambition, family grudges, work, wealth, and real estate, Gingerbread seems to be the one thing that reliably holds a constant value.
Influenced by the mysterious place gingerbread holds in classic children’s stories – equal parts wholesome and uncanny; from the tantalizing witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel to the man-shaped confection who one day decides to run as fast as he can – beloved novelist Helen Oyeyemi invites readers into a delightful tale of a surprising family legacy, in which the inheritance is a recipe.
Endlessly surprising and satisfying, written with Helen Oyeyemi’s inimitable style and imagination, Gingerbread is a true feast for the reader.
In a universe that includes fictional countries, magical creatures, talking dolls and houses with no fixed location, Gingerbread tells a story that is at once incredibly confusing and cleverly nuanced. Deciding how to review this book was a challenge.
Fact is Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread is confusing as hell. At the same time, I can’t help feeling I just don’t have the words to break it down for you. So, I’m just going to keep it simple.
Gingerbread follows the story of the Lees; Harriet, who alongside her mother is a British immigrant from a state most of the world considers to be nonexistent. In her home country, Harriet was a simple farm girl with a family bordering on poverty. This poverty which leads to them getting creative with their Gingerbread recipe which is beloved by all.
Soon, a wealthy distant relative comes with a proposal to take the Gingerbread and accompanying lifestyle to the masses. At which point, Harriet meets Gretel, a self-described changeling who will never grow old (Ogbanje sounding character). The two form a fragile friendship. Fragile because I couldn’t help feeling like the dynamics of their friendship wasn’t quite right.
Harriet and a number of young girls in her village are recruited into a themed house of some sort where they are exploited by her aunt. In this period, I could identify themes covering cultural appropriation, slavery and the tendency for privileged people to turn things/people unlike them into sideshows.
It doesn’t take long for Harriet to get disenchanted with this exercise. An emotional outburst on live TV leads to her being noticed by yet another distant relative/benefactor.
Harriet and Gretel part ways but not before making a pact to meet again at pre-selected on an atlas when Harriet grows up. This story gets repeated and passed on to Harriet’s daughter, Perdita whose quest to reunite her mother with Gretel serves as a trigger for the telling of this story.
For such a short book, there is a whole lot going on in Gingerbread. Many stories and subjects being covered parallel to each other which made losing the plot quite easy.
I had hoped to get drawn into the world of Helen Oyeyemi’s writing again and having my mind blown. Her style has always been confusing or better still requiring you to take a minute to digest what she’s saying. She writes in a lot of metaphors, she sets her books in magical places, time and space don’t necessarily function the same way.
Unlike What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, I couldn’t immediately get the gist of all the metaphors and nuances here. Weeks after reading it, I can say that Gingerbread touches on Racism, Classism, Discrimination, The struggles of being an outsider and more.
Not for the faint-hearted. If you have a degree in Literature or a talent for codebreaking, this may be up your alley.