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3 May 2016

Under lock and key: inside the fairytale world of Helen Oyeyemi

Reading What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is like settling into a roller coaster.

By Erica Wagner

Gepetta walks into a classroom in “is your blood as red as this? (yes)”, a story at the heart of Helen Oyeyemi’s first collection of tales. And, yes, her name looks familiar: a feminised slant on the creator of Pinocchio in Carlo Collodi’s 19th-century novel. Sure enough, the subject of the class is the history of puppetry; Gepetta is struck by the presence of Rowan Wayland, already settled in the room. There is an “ocean of space” around him; he seems to be either a pariah or a celebrity, maybe both. Gepetta can’t take her eyes off him. “Rowan’s physical effect – godlike jawline, long-lashed eyes, umber skin, rakish quiff of hair – is that of a lightning strike.” An inhuman beauty, one might say, and with good reason, for it becomes apparent that Rowan is a puppet, too, “masterless and entirely alive”.

It is a mark of Oyeyemi’s confidence that she masters such shifts so adeptly – but at the age of just 31 she is an experienced writer. Her first novel, The Icarus Girl, was written while she was still at school; she has since published four more, all of them built from a love of language and a fascination with fairy tales and mythology which have earned her comparisons with Angela Carter – and there are moments in this collection, certainly, which recall The Bloody Chamber. On the surface, Oyeyemi’s “dornička and the st martin’s day goose” looks like a riff on “Red Riding Hood”, an answer to Carter’s “Company of Wolves”, when Dornička meets a wolf on a mountain. Once again, however, things are not as they seem: “. . . let’s try to speak of things as they are: it was not a wolf she met but something that had recently consumed a wolf”. And Dornička is not a little girl but an adult; the story draws not only on what is familiar to us in western Europe but also the tales of the Czech poet Karel Jaromír Erben – it takes its epigraph from his ballad “The Golden Spinning Wheel”, a gruesome slant on a Cinderella tale.

Despite all these influences, the story is absolutely Oyeyemi’s own, set in a world where “speaking of things as they are” might lead the reader in any direction at all. And her arguments, about identity, about sexuality, are more fluid than Carter’s, as is to be expected from a writer of her generation and with her history. Born in Nigeria, Oyeyemi has lived in the UK since the age of four. Writers with a foot in two places often have a keen sense of what it means to belong – or not to belong.

She plays with this idea most directly in “a brief history of the homely wench society”, in which a group of young women push down the doors of an all-male society at Cambridge University (the author’s alma mater; I reckon she knows whereof she speaks). What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is freighted with ideas of entry, of permission: it is a book full of locks and keys. In the opening story, “books and roses”, a foundling is left in a chapel; the little girl has a golden chain around her neck, and on the chain is a key. As she grows, the girl tries every lock, but no doors open. “. . . what could she call it, a notion, a suggestion, a promise?” She will discover that the key fits the door of a library that smells of leather and roses.

But the path to the door is not direct: like most of the tales in this book, “books and roses” loops and swirls, hooking characters together and then setting them apart, making the reader wait until the next story (or perhaps the one after that) to meet up with them again. Do not be misled by this recurrence; the stories here are linked not by a thread of events, but by a sensibility, one cut free from the constraints of conventional narrative. The tales’ swerving trajectory makes their peaks of emotion – as when a character in “presence” imagines the life of the child she has never had – all the more powerful. Reading What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is like settling into a roller coaster: you must abandon yourself to the turns and drops. Only then will you enjoy the ride.

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What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi is published by Picador (263pp, £14.99)

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This article appears in the 27 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism