In Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel, an unidentified gingerbread addict tells a principal character that eating her gingerbread 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… That heart, ground to ash and shot through with darts of heat, salt, spice and sulphurous syrup, as if honey were measured out, set ablaze, and trickled through the dough along with the liquefied spoon.
Comparing baked goods to strong narcotics, Oyeyemi serves compulsion and craving in each bite of her richly descriptive, typically divergent book.
The baker in question is Harriet Lee, who, superficially at least, is the respectable if eccentric single parent of a friendless teenage girl, Perdita (deriving, significantly, from the Latin perditus, “lost”). A harassed adult education teacher, Harriet is cold-shouldered by Perdita’s school’s cliquey PTA (or in this case PPA, Parental Power Association). Mother and daughter live on the seventh floor of a house in west London: they share their apartment with Perdita’s precocious talking dolls, whose bodies are embedded with flowers and plants, and who bicker in the manner of human adults, and a gingerbread recipe passed down through the family and adapted by each keeper. Harriet and Perdita form a tight nucleus with Margot, Harriet’s mother: three generations of women with identical grey hair. So far, so witchy.
Oyeyemi’s fiction, from her debut novel The Icarus Girl, through White is for Witching, The Opposite House and Mr Fox, is as restless and self-delighting as Gingerbread’s disturbingly conversational dolls. One of its joys is that it is not necessarily emblematic of anything other than itself. “I have a very interior focus and have just gone from book to book without much awareness of exterior perceptions,” Oyeyemi said recently. Her plots – such as they are – are dizzying, and somewhat overwhelming: one doesn’t simply read her books but actively submits to them. If her works have a common theme it is doubleness and the “other”, often imbued with the traditional Yoruba (from south-western Nigeria) fascination with twins and the reincarnation of the soul.
When Perdita, who is allergic to gluten and therefore to her mother’s gingerbread, appears to attempt suicide by ingesting a vast quantity of the stuff, the proper phase of the novel begins. On recovering, this insular teenager reveals that she was not resisting one life but beginning another – she has, apparently, been travelling to Druhástrana (literally, “the other side” in Slovak) from where Margot and Harriet originate, and which, according to its fictional Wikipedia definition, is “an alleged nation state of indeterminable geographic location”.
So begins a bedtime story as dark as molasses, as Harriet relays her past to Perdita and her dolls. “Rich sweet embers, nourishment of djinns and other fire-eaters.” Druhástrana is located in central Europe, not far from the real Czech Republic (Oyeyemi has been living in Prague for a number of years). It has landmarks at each border that might have come out of the pages of Grimm, such as “a wooden clog the size of a caravel, a relic from the days of giants” and a jack-in-the-box with a peeling skull. Yet it also seems to belong to a Soviet-style society of forced agricultural collectivisation. Here Harriet grew up “in a house… surrounded by stalks of wheat as tall as saplings”.
Magical yet deeply creepy, Harriet’s childhood takes place in a bizarre world of rigged lottery scams, forbidden wishing wells and fake money, with a “frenemy” called Gretel Kercheval at its heart. When Harriet and Gretel first meet, Gretel has tumbled into a well and returned as a changeling with double pupils in each eye. It is Gretel’s ring that Perdita brings back, clutched in her hand, from her gingerbread-induced coma, and Gretel who affects every aspect of Harriet’s past and present.
“It’s a bit far-fetched” as the dolls point out, and a times Oyeyemi’s characters cannot keep pace with her luscious imagery. Yet Gingerbread is also grounded in the here and now and is spikily funny, referencing Tinder, Amazon reviews, Skype and Ariana Grande as well as conjuring a breathtaking fantasy landscape somewhere between Don Quixote and Alice in Wonderland. Like Harriet’s ever-changeable recipe, Oyeyemi’s novel is both “the kind your teeth snap into shards, and the kind your teeth sink into”.
Helen Oyeyemi appears at Cambridge Literary Festival on 5 April
Picador, 304pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 13 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, She’s lost control