I have a recurring disappointment with modern novels. Even when the characters act believably out of character and the plot twists in a satisfying way, all too often I can predict the next step. I find myself skimming sentences, paragraphs, entire pages without missing a single important morsel.
Helen Oyeyemi doesn’t allow her readers such laziness. Her sentences are like grabbing onto the tail of a vibrant, living creature without knowing what you’ll find at the other end. It’s absolutely exhilarating.
Her newest novel, “Gingerbread,” is no exception. Early in the story, the main character walks through a field and passes an “array of plant-vertebrate combinations,” including droopy-eared rabbits, which she douses with her watering can. A few paragraphs later, “the wheat field had done it again, stolen the afternoon.” Everything is alive, unpredictable, sometimes whimsical and other times sinister, and often very bizarre.
I knew immediately there wasn’t going to be any skimming. This novel would require attention, not just because I couldn’t guess where each sentence was leading, but also because I was trying to get my feet under me. Where am I? Is this science fiction or a fairy tale? Maybe satire or social commentary?
At its simplest, “Gingerbread” is about family — Harriet tells her daughter her origin story, how Harriet came to England with her own mother from the magical but flawed country of Druhástrana, and how they struggled to survive and create a new home for themselves. It is also about the gingerbread Harriet bakes: spicy, addictive, transporting, either brittle or chewy, often given in friendship, occasionally laced with the threat of death. “It is not humble, nor is it dusty in the crumb.” Instead, “it’s like noshing on the actual and anatomical heart of someone who scarred your beloved and thought they’d got away with it.”
But this remarkable, surprising novel cannot be summed up so easily. In Druhástrana, peasants work the land for unnamed, callous owners who always demand more. The country’s borders are marked by a shoe the size of a ship that may or may not have belonged to a giant Cinderella and, at the other end, by a jack-in-the-box with a peeling skull. Harriet’s father is Simple Simon and her best friend is Gretel, a changeling she discovers in a well.
This fairy-tale aura isn’t confined to Druhástrana. Back in England, as Harriet recounts the story to her daughter Perdita, several dolls sit nearby with living vines and primroses sprouting from their hands and chests. More astonishing, the dolls can speak, and they offer dry, witty commentary on Harriet’s storytelling and call to mind an edgier version of the Muppets’ two old heckling men.
“Gingerbread” is often funny. The grandmother wants to know what to do if you’ve accidentally “superliked” someone on Tinder, “and then discovered the accidental superlike has superliked you too (also accidentally?).” Another character says he’s learning a great deal from his pet tortoise, including “how to eat lettuce as if it’s caviar.”
But like Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum before her, Oyeyemi’s work is more than just fairy-tale whimsy and clever humor. The characters’ names are an assortment of Chinese, German, Hebrew, Italian, French, Arabic, Slavic, English. In the background, Portuguese music fills a cafe. The peasants and threshing forks, wheat farms and factories, as well as many language references, conjure Soviet-era Czechoslovakia, but then there are binge-worthy streaming TV shows, smartphone texting, lottery drawings and identity parades. Mixed in with the pop-culture mentions are nods to Emily Dickinson, Émile Zola and Honoré de Balzac. Gingerbread becomes a managed commodity and Harriet is working as a gingerbread girl, but being paid with fake money. Later, Harriet’s employer picks her up in a limousine with “rose-tinted windows” to drive down a gingerbread road.
It is, frankly, a lot to take in. I was like Gretel picking up bread crumbs along the path, trying to find my way to the coherent core of the novel. I looked up the meaning of Perdita’s name and laughed to myself. It is Latin for lost. That is how I felt at times in Oyeyemi’s world. A little lost. I had become Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy in the Land of Oz.
If only I had an annotated version of “Gingerbread,” I thought, like my annotated “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Where is Druhástrana? What does Mr. Jack-in-the-Box symbolize? What year is it? Who is Gretel really?
Then, as if I had asked these questions out loud, Oyeyemi answered me in the text — “Why insist on pinpointing who was who and what is what and when was when?” And I laughed again.
“Gingerbread” is jarring, funny, surprising, unsettling, disorienting and rewarding. It requires the reader to be quick-footed and alert. And by the end, it is clear what has grounded the story from the start — the tender and troubling humanity of its characters. Harriet’s mother supports herself and her daughter on the “Minimum FrankenWage” of several low-paying jobs, even as they grow thinner without enough food. Harriet attempts to befriend the members of the Parental Power Association by giving them tins of her gingerbread, only to be snubbed. Teenage Perdita leaves a note for her mother, saying: “You’ve embarrassed me for the last time. Grandma’s going to raise me, so don’t ever talk to me or come near me anymore. PS. Thank you for the food and lodging to date.”
As for the outlandish aspects of the story — the house that runs away from anyone who tries to approach it, a brutal umbrella duel — they provide more than jump-scares and laughs. “Gingerbread” has a lot to say about what it means to leave a homeland and to seek a sense of community and family in a new country. It is also about the economic inequality that pervades not just distant, magical lands but also places that appear on maps. It is a novel that feels prescient, and it deserves to be read carefully, considered and discussed.
Years ago, a friend and I were talking about the latest megaselling thriller, and he said that reading it was like eating an entire box of doughnuts. It seems like a treat while you’re mindlessly devouring it, but when you’re done, all you’re left with is a sticky, empty box and a sugar headache.
Oyeyemi’s newest novel is no box of doughnuts, and I mean that both as warning and as enticement. This is not a book to devour mindlessly. It is much like Harriet’s gingerbread: “a square meal and a good night’s sleep and a long, blood-splattered howl at the moon rolled into one.” This is a wildly imagined, head-spinning, deeply intelligent novel that requires some effort and attention from its reader. And that is just one of its many pleasures.