The Many Layers in Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread

by Charis Caputo

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Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread (Random House, 2019) is a two-hundred-fifty-page modern fairy tale that is nearly too swift and anarchic to summarize. Protagonist Harriet Lee’s fictional homeland of Druhástrania is an Eastern European agricultural backwater with a dark-skinned population, presumed by all non-Druhástranians to be mythical. Having immigrated to England as a teenager, Harriet, now thirty-something, is raising her teenage daughter, Perdita, in London. A young single mother, bright but lacking confidence, Harriet struggles to fit in with the cool, yuppie parents of Perdita’s peers, compulsively—and a bit pathetically—baking gifts of gingerbread from an old family recipe originally invented for purposes of turning blighted wheat into calories on the old Druhástranian farmstead. When Perdita intentionally poisons herself with a batch of drugged gingerbread—not a suicide attempt, but a misguided route to the “mythical” land from which she suspects her mother secretly hails—Harriet seduces her daughter back into consciousness with an epic and suspenseful bedtime story. This story-within-the-story (one of Oyeyemi’s signature devices) comprises the bulk of the novel, revealing all that which Harriet has kept hidden from her daughter: Harriet’s Druhástranian childhood, her life-altering friendship with a “changeling” named Gretel, the exploitative and precarious process of Harriet’s immigration to the UK, and Perdita’s mysterious paternity.

Oyeyemi always wears historical periodization lightly, but the world of the novel is both counterfactual and ahistorical, encompassing not only a fictional European nation of black peasants, but also a cosmopolitan European culture perpetually inclusive of texting, Tumblr, and bone broth diet fads. Oyeyemi is among the most prolific and compelling practitioners of magical realism writing in English today. Like her previous six books, Gingerbread is a richly allusive kaleidoscope of real and unreal, mythical and mundane. Her style is not so much about magic-as-plot-device or the simple updating of premodern folktales. Instead, she mines global folklore for resonant archetypes from which to construct weird collages of reality. Oyeyemi’s strategy is often to project a compelling image from many different angles, until the image becomes multidimensional—a character in itself.

The predominant image of Gingerbread is, well, gingerbread—the motif evokes rustic festivity, makeshift and precarious domesticity (think gingerbread house, think single immigrant mother), and imperiled childhood (as in Hansel and Gretel). Not only is daughter Perdita’s young life at stake, but also, as we learn through Harriet’s story, the mother too experienced a loss of innocence, as she progressed from peasant child to factory girl to immigrant teenager.

Druhástrania functions as a sort of archetypal immigrant homeland, both misty and brutal. Derived from the Czech phrase druha strana, meaning “the other side,” the place is an almost featureless sea of wheat fields, where the populace has resisted foreign incursions that vaguely resemble both colonization and communism: “What Druhástranians wanted was to keep things simple and concentrate on upholding financial inequality.” In this fictional nation, Oyeyemi—who emigrated from Nigeria to Britain as a child and who now lives in Prague—has perhaps stitched together a mythology encompassing her own eclectic experiences of home. In imagining immigrants who are both black and of European origin, Oyeyemi also presents us with a politically intriguing counterfactual exercise, playing with racial expectations and perceptions of respectability. And respectability is Harriet’s most poignant and relatable desire: “She wants to know how it feels to be absolutely sure that you haven’t done anything wrong.”

Gingerbread is the sixth novel of Oyeyemi’s prolific and prodigious career. It is far from her best work. It lacks the otherworldly lyricism of The Opposite House, the formal playfulness of Mr. Fox, the taut suspense and historical intrigue of Boy, Snow, Bird. Oyeyemi has a demonstrated gift for introducing characters who feel at once strange and familiar, but here they arrive and depart so abruptly and obliquely that the reader scarcely forms an attachment. Perhaps this whirling characterization is mimetic of the immigrant experience. But the novel moves so fast and far-afield that, at times, the narrative loses coherence.

Still, the masterful swoops in tone are classic Oyeymi. At turns spooky, grave, and wry, Gingerbread is perhaps her most satirical novel yet—almost maniacally so. There are plenty of genuinely funny moments—at Perdita’s school, the PTA has been replaced by the “PPA (Parental Power Association),” in a takedown of helicopter parenting—and astonishingly unique ones; where else would you encounter magic dolls who “[shout] through their nostrils, like Susie Greene in Curb Your Enthusiasm”? What this novel has going for it is a fantastic narrative voice, channeled through an omniscient narrator who, though unnamed, is resplendent with personality. At turns empathetic and sarcastic, self-deprecating and grandiose, embodied and essayistic, colloquial and musical, the voice here is much like the Lee family gingerbread recipe: “saline, saccharine, piquant, all proportions correct.”

Washington Square