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What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours: Stories


What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours: Stories

Helen Oyeyemi has gained international acclaim for her earlier novels, including MR. FOX and BOY, SNOW, BIRD. Granta named the Nigerian-born writer one of the best young British novelists in 2013. Since her earliest writings, Oyeyemi has been inspired by a variety of folk and mythological sources, utilizing the language and imagery of classic folk and fairy tales in new and sometimes unsettling ways. Now, in her new story collection, WHAT IS NOT YOURS IS NOT YOURS, she continues to offer a strange but beautiful mix of contemporary characters and situations with classic folk and fairy tale motifs.

It might be a bit of a stretch to call the nine stories that compose WHAT IS NOT YOURS IS NOT YOURS “interconnected,” although many do share moments of commonality, including some characters and imagery. Most notably, virtually all the stories contain imagery of locks and keys, which sometimes lie at the center of the plot but just as often serve a more metaphorical purpose.

"[Oyeyemi] continues to offer a strange but beautiful mix of contemporary characters and situations with classic folk and fairy tale motifs."

In the opening story, “Books and Roses,” a woman who was left at a monastery as a baby with a key to an unidentifiable door falls in love with another woman who has been left a key by a former lover, and both ladies must discover what doors their keys unlock --- and why. In “Drownings,” a man desperate to save a kingdom --- and a young woman --- from a tyrant throws a key into a fire, but his actions may destroy more lives than they save. And in “Sorry Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,” a man takes care of a possibly hostile fish while its owner is overseas. The house is called “The House of Locks,” and the housesitter finds the house’s properties unsettling: “Because of the doors. They don’t stay closed unless they’re locked. Once you’ve done that you hear sounds behind them; sounds that convince you you’ve locked someone in.”

This kind of vaguely supernatural presence also runs through the stories, from the sentient puppet who narrates the second half of “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” to the “Little Red Riding Hood”-inspired story “Dornička and the St. Martin’s Day Goose” (in which the “wolf” may also be more metaphorical than actual).

As in her previous fiction, Oyeyemi draws on a variety of geographic locales and folk traditions in these stories, although many of them share an eastern European feel, from the names of the characters to their setting to the kinds of imagery that is employed. Oyeyemi’s narrative voice, her ability to write quasi-folkloric prose with such authority, can make occasional contemporary references (such as mentions of Google searches or the Eurovision song contest) seem startling. These brief interruptions to Oyeyemi’s classic tropes and deliberately old-fashioned prose style serve as reminders to readers that great stories, timeless stories, can still arise from modern times, and that the language and images of folk traditions can still, at times, take us by surprise.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 11, 2016

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours: Stories
by Helen Oyeyemi

  • Publication Date: March 7, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 1594634645
  • ISBN-13: 9781594634642