Book Review: The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

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The Icarus Girl – Helen Oyeyemi (Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday Books, 2005)

I’ve read one novel (Boy, Snow, Bird) and a short story collection (What is not Yours is not Yours reviewed here)  from Helen Oyeyei and it was interesting to go back and read her first novel. Icarus Girl is a strange, surreal, sometimes confusing novel. None of that is surprising, having read Oyeyemi previously, especially her most recent story collection but Icarus Girl seems to exist on a slightly different, stranger plane. My gut reaction to the novel is that it is more Nigerian. I’m not sure if this is entirely true (since my knowledge of Nigeria is mostly limited to the books of other authors) but Nigeria is much more central to this story than I’ve noticed in Oyeyemi’s other work.

Jessamy Harrison is eight-years-old, the daughter of a Nigerian mother and English father. Her family lives in England but head to Nigeria to visit her mother’s family for the first time in years. It is clear from the beginning that Jess is smart and troubled. She’s lonely, friendless, and prone to heavy anxiety and screaming fits. Each member of her little family seems to move in its own lonely orbit, occasionally bumping up against one another. It was hard to get a read on her parents’ relationship and what had drawn them together (and kept them together).

While visiting Nigeria, Jess befriends TillyTilly, a mysterious little girl who then shows up in England as well. At first Jess is delighted to have a friend but TillyTilly becomes increasingly strange and her powers and her knowledge are shown to be dark. TillyTilly begins to reveal secrets about Jess’ family and begins to act out some of Jess’ own darkest fantasies.

The book is creepy and strange. How much of what Jess experiences is real? Is it supernatural? Is it in her mind? How real is TillyTilly? How much control does Jess have over herself? What is captured brilliantly in The Icarus Girl though is the danger and isolation of childhood. I appreciate when I read a book that shows the loneliness and sadness of children because I remember childhood as a lonely and scary time. Not always and, hopefully, for most children these are brief periods, but childhood is not the idyllic period that so much media would have us believe. Children are often overwhelmed by the world. They don’t know what is true, what is real, who to trust. Jessamy’s tumble into madness? possession? demonstrates this vividly. The watery characters of the adults around her seems to reflect the growing knowledge of children who realize that the adults in their lives can’t always protect her.

There are many ways in which it’s evident that Oyeyemi’s talent has grown since she wrote this book as a student but her strange and powerful style is already evident.

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi”

  1. I haven’t read any of her books, but I must say this one sounds more intriguing to me than her later ones. Yes, indeed – childhood can have its scary and confusing times just as much as the idyllic bike-riding summers that we all like to remember…

  2. Her more recent stuff (that I’ve read at least) is more cohesive, I think, and more polished, but this is a good example of her style and how she mixes realism and fantasy. And it’s a good use of a child narrator because so often children don’t know what’s real and what’s not.

    1. I wonder that too…it’s not clear at all after reading the book and it’s a strange reference since the mythology that the story uses is Nigerian (along with some fairy tale references).

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