Gingerbread

By Helen Oyeyemi

Riverhead. 258 pp. $27

Reviewed by Ron Charles

Someone must have given Helen Oyeyemi a handful of magic beans when she was born in Nigeria, because she’s been planting them ever since. This fantastical writer, who completed her first, acclaimed novel at 18, sows her modern-day stories in the fertile ground of ancient myths and fables.

But Oyeyemi, now 34, isn’t just goosing old fairy tales with contemporary melodies. She’s drawn to what’s most unsettling about these fables: their disorienting logic, their blithe cruelty, their subtle encoding of race and gender.

Her new novel, Gingerbread, is a challenging, mind-bending exploration of class and female power heavily spiced with nutmeg and sweetened with molasses. If you think you know where you’re going in this forest, you’ll soon be lost. Oyeyemi has built her house out of something far more complex than candy.

The novel opens in contemporary London, where Harriet Lee, an immigrant, lives with her teenage daughter, Perdita. They own a large apartment so high that “climbing the staircases takes more than just walking up; it’s also necessary to spring, scramble and wriggle.” It’s such a challenge to reach them, in fact, that “princess in a tower syndrome sets in” — one of many fairy tale allusions that should set off your inner Brothers Grimm.

A few years ago, Oyeyemi told an interviewer, "I’m very interested in strange women, women who are for some reason not able to express emotion in a way that wins them friends." Harriet Lee is such a character, kind and sympathetic, but guileless in the ways of social competition. She’s desperate to ingratiate herself with the snobs on the parents’ advisory committee at her daughter’s school. Her only special skill is making gingerbread from a recipe passed down through her family for generations.

But don’t think of a spice cake from a Pillsbury mix or those cookie-cutter men. One of Harriet’s addicted fans tells her that “eating her gingerbread is like eating revenge” — and who could resist that?

Unfortunately, Harriet’s daughter must resist. Born with celiac disease, Perdita almost died from gorging on gingerbread as a toddler. So years later when Harriet comes home one evening and finds her teenager in a coma surrounded by fresh gingerbread, she knows something is horribly wrong.

So far, most of this makes a certain kind of sense, or at least enough sense to nervously ignore the nonsensical asides, obscure references, and non sequiturs. But once Harriet’s sleeping beauty wakes up in the hospital and begs her mother to reveal the secret of their family’s past, the dimensions of this novel start to bend in surreal ways. The narrator explains that Harriet has "the kind of past that makes the present dubious. Talking or thinking about ‘there’ lends ‘here’ a hallucinatory quality that she could frankly do without. Pull the thread too hard and both skeins unravel simultaneously."

Get ready for some heady tangles.

The bulk of the novel is Harriet, sitting alongside her daughter’s hospital bed, spinning the long story of her own childhood in an isolated nation called Druhástrana, which, we’re told, many scholars do not believe exists. Harriet grew up in a poor village near a giant shoe, "a relic from the days of giants." Her only entertainment was reading the novels of Émile Zola, which, even in French, would probably be easier for me to follow than this story.

Anyone who resists Oyeyemi’s absurdism will find Gingerbread a very bitter meal, indeed. A fan of Aimee Bender, Oyeyemi works in an adjacent realm of dreams where things simultaneously make perfect sense and no sense at all. What’s always clear, though, is Oyeyemi’s wit, often tossed off in satirical asides — sometimes silly, sometimes sharply political. Perdita, for instance, gives her mother a smile of such calculated purity that “Tyra Banks would be proud.” Meanwhile, the citizens of Druhástrana reject all foreign ideals so they can “keep things simple and concentrate on upholding financial inequality.”

Maybe we know where Druhástrana is, after all. We just have to follow Oyeyemi’s bread crumbs back to ourselves.

Ron Charles reviews books for the Washington Post, where this review first appeared.