Helen Oyeyemi's "What Is Not Yours": Surreal takes on contemporary life

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Helen Oyeyemi, author of "What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours." Photo: Manchul Kim

What Is Not Yours
Is Not Yours

By Helen Oyeyemi

Riverhead. 336 pp. $27


Reviewed by

Tara Murtha


 

British writer Helen Oyeyemi writes stories the same way most people make paper snowflakes, carefully slicing out the parts she wants you to notice the most. Every story in the 30-year-old former wunderkind's latest literary offering is chiseled out of the same alphabet the rest of us are stuck with, but with a razor-sharp pen and a few twists and folds of reality, Oyeyemi crafts strange tales that at times border on sinister as they scissor in and out of contemporary reality.

What is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a collection of stories that loosely overlap. They are macabre, surreal fables that careen through different times and styles, threaded together by repetition of heavy-handed metaphors. It is a book blooming with rose gardens (a rose garden is a beautiful and sacred space, whether cultivated or wild), and populated by puppets, but most of all, everywhere you look, there are keys. Keys melting in a fire, keys slipping into a swamp where townsfolk live after being murdered by a tyrant, keys dangling from a thread looped around the neck of an abandoned child.

Not to say the writing is not delicious. After meeting a woman with a key around her neck in the first story, Oyeyemi pulls us backward, through the house of many rooms and down the stairs and out into the street and past the women scrubbing hot laundry and into the rose garden to explain. (There is a lot of explaining throughout the stories.) When plots get fussy, Oyeyemi's style comes to the rescue, a faucet of glimmering words and shadows that wash the mind clean of any lingering confusion. A painter loses her breath, "a consequence of snatching images out of the air — the air took something back." A man "fought sleep until the nightmares came to take him by force." Oyeyemi seemingly observes the world as a series of quiet, almost imperceptible explosions of violence, transgressions of arbitrary boundaries like skin and walls and worlds.

Sometimes, she mixes a sense of the mythical with contemporary media analysis.  In the second story, " 'Sorry' Doesn't Sweeten her Tea," a gay man who works as a weight-loss clinician worries about his stepdaughters after they watch a YouTube video featuring a woman who claims she was assaulted by their favorite pop star. The girls make the worst mistake a person can make on the Internet: They read the comments. Naturally, disappointment and depression set in almost immediately.

Through the tale of Matyas Füst, Oyeyemi charts the predictable public relations spectacle we've all watched through screens after a powerful and famous man is accused of assaulting women: The accuser is trashed by his fans, then the pop star releases an apology. The apology is insufficient, and then there's a backlash … so he releases a new apology. In the end, the pop star profits from the carefully constructed rehabilitation narrative, as the empathy of children who once admired him is cannibalized, commercialized, and sold back to them. Oyeyemi is a keen observer of the modern cultural ethos, and she doesn't like it one bit. "He'd been told that the key to a real apology was the identification of one's real mistake," she writes of her pop star. "He hoped to be able to do that soon."

For all of Oyeyemi's magical thinking, for all mining the depths of mythical swamps and pumping of blood into puppets, "Presence," one of the least fantastical stories, is arguably the strongest.  Jill Akkerman is a psychologist who suspects her husband Jacob wants to leave her. Naturally, she avoids all conversation with him for as long as possible. It turns out that what Jacob wanted was to ask Jill to help him research a project that has developed out of his work as a bereavement counselor. He has found that people grieving loss sometimes experience "an implosion of memory. And as the subjects drift through the subsequent debris, they calmly develop a conviction that they do not do so alone." In other words, they feel a presence. Jacob wants to know if he can recreate, or at least simulate the simulation, of that feeling.

Like the best surreal stories, it is impossible to summarize what happens next, but this is the story where Oyeyemi's distinct style and substance, her cuts and her canvas, work in tandem to create a lasting, singular, thoroughly chilling story. Yes, this book is uneven; some stories and characters cast longer shadows than others. Overall, it's worth diving in to come back to the surface, where nothing is as it seems even in the simplest of settings.

Tara Murtha is the author of "Bobbie Gentry's 'Ode to Billie Joe.' "