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Midway through Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel, GINGERBREAD, I began to have second thoughts about having agreed to review it. Not because I wasn’t enjoying reading it --- quite the contrary! --- but because about a hundred pages in, I realized that I was going to have to try to summarize the book, which, in the case of Oyeyemi’s fiction, is a phenomenally challenging thing to do.

Oyeyemi writes fiction like no one else. Her 2014 novel, BOY, SNOW, BIRD, offered a thoroughly remarkable take on the tale of Snow White, and her more recent story collection, WHAT IS NOT YOURS IS NOT YOURS, is similarly infused with magical elements, filtered through her extraordinary imagination. As you might have guessed, GINGERBREAD is, in the broadest possible terms, informed by the story of Hansel and Gretel. But make no mistake --- it is entirely its brilliant author’s own.

The novel opens in present-day London, where single mother Harriet Lee lives with her teenage daughter, Perdita. Harriet desperately wants to be accepted by the insular, disdainful “Power Parents Association” at school, but her attempts to win over their friendship by baking them tins of her signature gingerbread go unappreciated at best. This is, perhaps, not entirely surprising, since consuming Harriet’s gingerbread is described as “like eating revenge…like noshing on the actual and anatomical heart of somebody who scarred your beloved and thought they’d got away with it.” Perdita has celiac disease, so Harriet has developed a gluten-free gingerbread alternative. But in a scene that offers unsettling parallels to images of drug overdoses, Harriet discovers Perdita unconscious and in severe physical distress, after eating what appears to be gingerbread tainted with…something.

"Odd, playful, satirical and at times very funny, GINGERBREAD offers readers a delightful opportunity to enter a fictional world --- and a powerful imagination --- like none other."

When Perdita regains consciousness, she reveals that the decision to eat the gingerbread was intentional --- she was hoping that by doing so, she might somehow return to Druhástrana, the (possibly mythical) land from which Harriet and her mother Margot emigrated when Harriet was herself a teenager. Clutched in Perdita’s hand is a wooden ring, a ring that matches one that Harriet and her one-time best friend Gretel --- a mysterious changeling-like girl --- had back in Druhástrana. For 20 years, Harriet has believed that she would somehow reconnect with Gretel. Now she’s wondering if Gretel is somehow using Perdita to do exactly that.

Perdita offers Harriet an exchange of stories. If Harriet tells the story of how she left Druhástrana, Perdita will tell how and why she ate the gingerbread. Harriet agrees to do just that --- and this is where Oyeyemi’s story veers off from the quirky to the surreal, fairy-tale-like, and at times borderline nightmarish. Harriet tells of how she first met Gretel at the bottom of the well, and how she was intrigued by Gretel’s eyes, which each had two pupils. She tells of how she was recruited to become one of the “Gingerbread Girls,” whose adolescent sexuality was dressed up in whimsical costumes and paraded in front of observers who could look but never touch. And she tells the story of how she and her mother left Druhástrana at great bodily risk --- and how where they landed led to Perdita’s own birth.

Listening to these stories are Perdita and the (possibly sentient, also possibly part plant) dolls who are her closest companions. The dolls aren’t the only elements of GINGERBREAD that are open to interpretation. Like dreams, readers are likely to take away very different things from the book, and to question constantly what is real and what is magic or illusion. Like Druhástrana itself (whose very existence is questioned on its Wikipedia page), both Harriet and Perdita have experiences in which they are ignored, or forgotten, or overlooked: “Harriet has heard Perdita ask a question and seen the answer directed at somebody else without a skipped beat, as if the question came from the other girl.” Even in the novel’s more straightforward narrative portions, the question of what is true and solid vs. imagined and ephemeral surfaces again and again.

Odd, playful, satirical and at times very funny, GINGERBREAD offers readers a delightful opportunity to enter a fictional world --- and a powerful imagination --- like none other.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 29, 2019

by Helen Oyeyemi

  • Publication Date: March 3, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 1594634661
  • ISBN-13: 9781594634666