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a matter of taste

81NIWZHFd2L.jpgGingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

Riverhead Books, 2019. Hardcover Fiction, 272 pages.

Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread resides somewhere between Fiction’s family drama and Fantasy’s modern fairytale. It would provide a lovely bridge for contemporary fiction readers to find or develop a taste for books like Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, The Way Through Doors by Jesse Ball, or China Mieville’s This Census-Taker. I would suggest, however, that it’s a unidirectional bridge. I am not as impressed by Gingerbread as I think I’m supposed to be.

I am impressed with Oyeyemi’s characterizations of people, places, and relationships.  Gingerbread reads like a paper-clipped sketches of characters, settings, and ideas that are lovely to experience. All are centered around a peculiar, yet relatable family, and gingerbread, of course.

Harriet Lee’s gingerbread is not comfort food. There’s no nostalgia baked into it, no hearkening back to innocent indulgences and jolly times at nursery. It is not humble, nor is it dust in the crumb.

These opening lines set the tone for the novel, and Harriet herself. That is the thing about this gingerbread recipe Harriet has inherited, each generation makes it their own. “When Harriet looks through the recipe, she sees the pragmatist and the ideologue joining hands and smiling tiredly at one another.”

The novel opens not only in an effort to familiarize ourselves with Harriet Lee, but the delightfully-strange that fairytales bring to the everyday. How the gingerbread recipe came to Harriet is a fascinating story of a woman who took advantage of a clemency clause for public executions as one might a dating service. The way Oyeyemi will write it with humor will prove charming. “Marriage was purgatorial, purifying. All it took was for one member of the crowd to come forward and say that they would handle your rehabilitation. […] Public executions […] not dissimilar to the blind dating and speed dating of today.” These moments can be sharp, and thought-provoking; which endanger the cleverness of those asides and whimsical digressions; because pacing. Other times, Harriet in dialog or storytelling mode is hard to track.

Oyeyemi will forgo quoting in favor of italics, sometimes not bothering with attributing remarks, and the reader can follow it. It aids in that emphasis between the seamlessness of story and present-day activity, of fantasy and real, of fact and conscious dispensing of information. When we get to Harriet’s tale of her history, she will admit to considering what should and should not be told; what she is allowed or not to tell. She admits this to her audience of one daughter and four living dolls.

In Gingerbread we get the piecing together of two worlds (Britain and Druhástrana), two families (Lee and Kercheval), and two characters (Harriet and Gretel).

Druhástrana: “the name of an alleged nation state of indeterminable geographic location” as quoted in Oyeyemi’s “Wikipedia article” that Harriet uses to remind Perdita that it isn’t real. Many believe Druhástrana is either in or be accessed by way of the Czech Republic. Harriet and her mother Margot went to visit to be sure. The description from their visit:

“Cream cakes and amber glass, concentrations of cigarette smoke (a blue-gray mist curl1ed out onto the street every time a pub door opened), grim light pressing down on grass so that whole fields of green stalks lean to one side, rainfall that seemed semi-divine in nature, blurring and brightening the face of the statues. And then there were those street-corner skirmishes—three times Margot and Harriet had held each other so as to stay upright in a sudden wave of starched shirts and petticoats as masked men and women appeared out of nowhere, fought with axes made out of balloons, and then ran away crowing into the night, leaving the fallen where they lay, popped balloons strewn all around like burst lungs.”

Of course we learn that Druhástrana is an actual place and it’s where Margot and Harriet are from originally. Their life may not sound like a fairytale—eating disorders, isolation, a desperate need to be part of the Parental Power Association (PPA aka PTA)…

Does Harriet want in? Fuck yes. Imagine the sense of invulnerability! What must it be like to clock that someone’s staring at you and feel no concern? She wasn’t to know how it feels to be absolutely sure that you haven’t done anything wrong. She not intimidated either—she doesn’t believe for a second that these people aren’t tryhards just like her. They’re tryhards who succeed, that’s all. Their striving is never past tense; it’s merely concealed.

You know, nevermind, maybe present-day England does share elements of the fairytale. But Britain doesn’t have landmarks in the form of a giant clog (ala “cinderella”) or jack-in-the-box; or “plant-vertebrae combinations.” It doesn’t have Gretel’s Well.

It is at Gretel’s Well in Druhástrana that Harriet meets Gretel: “the girl had two pupils in each eye; that’s why her eyes looked like bottomless lakes in the torchlight.” Meeting Gretel here should seem like a given, but there was never an explanation for why the well was named after Gretel before Gretel happened to physically be associated with it. According to local lore, it was the one landmark that had no story. True to our own lore on Gretel, Oyeyemi’s is disturbing. If anything, Oyeyemi reminds readers that the old tales are hardly all sweetness and light.

Druhástrana is rife with all the economic, social, political bullshit we know here. Harriet will begin to talk about it like this: “The circumstances of the farmstead families were dictated by a person, a theoretical person, a corporate letterhead, really. Whatever the thing or person was, It had never met them and most likely didn’t know their names or what they looked like.” When they meet the “theoretical person,” she persuades the farmstead families to send their young teen daughters to become Gingerbread Girls at a themed-entertainment venue/sweatshop in the city. This particular “theoretical person” is Gretel Kercheval’s mother.

Which brings us back to Gretel, whom we discover is a professional changeling:

Changeling as in a nonhuman replacement for a human child?

Changeling as in changeling. We’ve had bad press.

Right. What are your duties, then?

Mainly we assist people who’ve changed their minds in a way that means their lives have to be different too.

[…]

Is the pay good?

There is none. Usually I need a second or third job to get by.

Gretel is only a Kercheval for a time, and Harriet and Margot can’t stay in Druhástrana. Self-declared best friends forever, Harriet and Gretel come up with a plan to meet again at three different points/places in the future. In the meantime, Gretel will linger in Harriet’s consciousness, “sometimes she receives an opinion from Gretel, an opinion just as clear as if Gretel’s phoned her up and said the words herself. Harriet likes the thought of occasionally bursting in on Gretel’s thoughts too, advising on all sorts of situations she couldn’t possibly be aware of. This time her psychic projection of Gretel calmly and coolly looks over the email.” Gretel will also return in the form of ring in Perdita’s hand, renewing an imperative for Harriet to find one of those three places where she and Gretel might reunite.

How the hunt for Gretel and the three places comes about is a bit of a question mark. The set-up is strained. And it involves the Kercheval family–which is often strained.

The Kercheval family is made up of two brothers and their respective wives and only sons. It is Aristide that facilitates the Lees’ flight from Druhástrana—the family’s annual good deed. Their description and dynamic are part of Harriet’s nightlong bedtime story. Who they are and how they are are not without consequence to the Lee family and its present and future. This part of the familial drama will tease out the mystery of just who is Perdita’s father. It will also reveal the mystery behind where Perdita disappeared off to before she was found unconscious.

The revelations and the annual good deed contort themselves into the close of the bedtime story run necessarily long and the arrival of Chapter 14 which begins:

Hmmm…still here?

Huh, then it seems you wouldn’t mind hearing about the three houses.

I wasn’t in the humor for this kind of transition. I suppose it is a friendly reminder after several chapters that there was a narrator who isn’t Harriet. Just, who knew we were on such casual terms. Maybe the writer knew that the only reason I was going to finish this novel was because I was far enough in and I hoped to arrive at an ending that would pull it all together. Maybe I could’ve shrugged off that shift if that ending had pulled it all together for me. Maybe I wasn’t tracking well enough how Harriet was deciding to become less reliant on Gretel as the only source of friendship; how, because of Perdita and the gingerbread, the members of the PPA might come through; how a decision to linger with a chance encounter meant a significant turn and ending for Harriet and Gingerbread?

 [Person] being (or not being) Gretel was of importance to Harriet because Gretel was the cause of Harriet’s inability to be a proper friend to anybody else. Consider all the friendships that have gone unmade by and all with Harriet Lee because she was saving herself for great amity that was on pause, that had not properly begun.

I do “consider all the friendship that have gone unmade” as requested. And I think I know what the author is saying. I guess I’d lost the thread somewhere and arrived at a tidy bow in a state of disarray. I was left with all those paperclips that held the sketches together and was at a loss as to what to do with them; and I wondered if the author had felt the same organizing those sketches and ideas to be collated.

If you can appreciate the journey through beautiful renderings of character and place, through sharp and humorous insights, and with all the ease of movement between the subjects and elements of fairy tale and literary fiction, Gingerbread writes itself into pleasurable sittings in three parts. If you are a plot-driven reader, I’d recommend this only as an opportunity to add something vastly different from your diet.

If you are looking for a book populated by only Black characters, Gingerbread is an excellent choice. The three Lee women of “pearl-pale hair and bark-brown skin” are striking, well-rounded characters everyone should have the joy of meeting. A briefest of moments that hints at the personalities of each and their relationship: “Margot has already filed away this episode under a combination of fairly prosaic categories: masochism, celiac disease, and a maniacally obliging mother. But Margot only things that that’s how things work with Perdita because Perdita is usually quite ordinary around her.”

 

 

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