Helen Oyeyemi’s works partake of the fairytale, steering a perilous course between whimsy and incoherence. They are referential, playful things, using traditional tales to comment slyly on cultural ideas of race, class and gender. And so, Gingerbread, her latest novel: the tale of three women, Margot, her daughter Harriet, and her daughter Perdita. Harriet and Perdita live together in a seventh-floor flat in London which, though faded, shows signs of former grandeur, with its velvet curtains and silver-shaded chandeliers. Their life seems happy, until Harriet discovers Perdita unconscious in bed, having apparently overdosed after a spate of bullying.
Gingerbread is a novel about placelessness. Margot Lee, you see, hails originally from Druhastrana, an eastern European country that, Christopher Priest-like, is not discernible on any map, nor discoverable in any Google search. A nation that has closed its borders, Druhastrana can seemingly only be reached by near-magical means: Margot smuggles herself and her daughter Harriet out in coffins, using a potion that simulates death. Hence Perdita’s near-fatal attempt to return there, to the homeland she’s never really known. This is, in short, a tale about immigration; more specifically, a tale about refugee-hood. Like Mohsin Hamad’s Exit West, it uses fantasy to curtail the actual physical journey away from a home country in order to highlight the lengths people go to in order to achieve it; and the dislocation they suffer when they’ve arrived.
The Lees’ lack of status – their strangeness, their self-sufficient isolation, their witchiness standing in, I think, for a cultural difference that their community rejects them for – stands in direct contrast to the worldliness of their rich benefactors, the Kerchevals, who are thoroughly at home in England and have the mansion to prove it. It’s all leaning into some typically fairy-tale dynamics: the handsome prince, the family psychodrama. But there’s something missing: I just don’t think Gingerbread is as sharp as, say, Boy, Snow, Bird, which uses “Snow White” to look at the toxicity of racism and sexism, or Mr Fox, where the Bluebeard story becomes a stick to beat a misogynistic author with. The fairy-tale resonances, while there, are muffled. I actually do like the way that the titular gingerbread, made to a Lee family recipe that “tastes like revenge”, associates these women with witchery and thus accounts for their social isolation, in a mirroring of the othering that many immigrants experience in real life. But I’m not sure it’s doing a huge amount of work beyond that: it’s an image that illustrates rather than interrogating. The novel’s frame of reference is too broad, there is too much going on, to add up to an emotionally meaningful fairy-tale schema. Try Mr Fox or the short story collection What is Not Yours is Not Yours instead.