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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Book Review: Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

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Stay with Me – Ayobami Adebayo (Knopf, 2017)

I really enjoyed this novel from first time author Ayobami Adebayo. Stay With Me is set in Nigeria, beginning in the early years of marriage between Yejide and Akin. They meet in university and have an instant connection. Despite polygamy being a common occurrence in Nigeria at this time, they agree that this will not be the case for their marriage. However, four years later and no children, their relationship is beginning to be strained, particularly by the pressure of Akin’s family. Until one day Akin secretly marries a second wife.

While the impetus for the unraveling of this relationship – polygamy – isn’t one that will be familiar to most Western readers, it really doesn’t matter in this well-crafted novel. What’s really at stake here is a marriage and the trust and intimacy that goes along with that. Adebayo beautifully captures the vulnerability that comes with betrayal in the relationship that we should expect to be safe1st within.

Also at the centre of this novel is motherhood, infertility, and loss. These made the book a hard and often emotional read for me and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear other parents find the same. Adebayo tiptoes along the edge of the unbelievable with some rather extraordinary events but the emotions at the centre of her characters’ choices remains honest and believable. It helps that in Yejide she creates a legimate character, a woman who is smart and independent and not reliant on the husband she loves, despite the society she lives within.

There are a few allusions to Nigerian politics and history throughout the novel and they, mostly, feel like asides and as though they could easily be removed from the book all together. That said, the political climate and turmoil is crucial to a key event in the novel toward the end. And while my knowledge of Nigerian history is sparse, it would probably feel strange to leave out any political references at all when the book is set during a time of upheaval.