All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

on March 13, 2019

Gingerbread
Helen Oyeyemi
Picador
2019, 291p
Copy courtesy Pan Macmillan AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

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.

Perdita Lee may appear to be 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 walk-up apartment 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.

Decades later, when teenaged Perdita sets out to find her mother’s long-lost friend, it prompts a new telling of Harriet’s story. 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. Endlessly surprising and satisfying, written with Helen Oyeyemi’s inimitable style and imagination, it is a true feast for the reader.

Haha, what even is this book about?

I don’t know. I like a dash of magical realism – I’m a big fan of Sarah Addison Allen. But I have to admit, this I think, was perhaps a bridge too far for my personal tastes? I hadn’t heard of Helen Oyeyemi before receiving this but I was really quite intrigued by the premise and the cover. The cover of this book is stunning. The gold is foil and it contrasts so nicely with the more subdued background.

Perdita is a 17yo girl living in England with her mother, an apparent expat from the country of Druhástrana, a country that no one really knows where it is and only three countries every acknowledge its existence and now two of those countries have revoked that. Apparently it’s maybe somewhere near Czechia or maybe Hungary or whatever but it has entirely closed borders and you can’t get in or out without some truly drastic measures being taken. Perdita’s grandmother escaped with her daughter (Perdita’s mother) Harriet. Now Perdita has taken the chance to visit her mother’s homeland.

I think I quite enjoyed the set up for this, the story of Harriet and Perdita in London and what Perdita does in order to visit her mother’s homeland……then it delved into Harriet’s past as a child/teen in this mysterious place of Druhástrana and somewhere in that section I think, is when I felt that this book and I kind of started to part ways. Things just started to get a bit too strange and I couldn’t really figure out where it was going…..or why. My knowledge of Hansel and Gretel, which people are saying this is retelling of, is a bit vague but there is a lot that just simply doesn’t seem to fit. I try not to read reviews of books I’ve read until after I’ve written my own review but I did glance at reviews on Goodreads and it seems a 50/50 split of people praising its brilliance and amazing writing and people who like me, were a bit confused what was going on and felt the story was a bit over their heads.

Reading is always your milage may vary and I think for me this was a good indication of how much magical realism I enjoy – more a pinch than the whole dumped in amount. There were too many things here that I felt weren’t particularly adequately explained and just ignored away because it was magical realism and didn’t require an explanation. Which okay, fine for some probably but it made it too difficult for me to really sink into the story because I was always wondering about things. And the story kind of petered out about halfway through and went from heading somewhere to just…..not. I didn’t understand why Perdita did what she did and what it achieved, or didn’t achieve. The writing was good, excellent even but the story was just lacking for me. It was super quick, which was in its favour (especially as I read this during a break from slogging through an 830p book) and it was difficult…..but I did find that I spent a lot of time wondering what the heck was going on and why something was either happening or not happening.

Safe to say, this isn’t my sort of story. But it seems that Helen Oyeyemi has a lot of fans and her books are widely praised so I might be tempted to try something again and see if perhaps I enjoy her style more on further exploration. And if not, well then I’ve given something a go.

5/10

Book #44 of 2019

I discovered upon finishing this that I can use it towards my Reading Women Challenge. Helen Oyeyemi was born in Nigeria so I’m ticking off category #3. It’s the 7th book completed for the challenge out of 26.


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