Sweet Feast: A Review of Helen Oyeyemi’s ‘Gingerbread’

When I heard Helen Oyeyemi speak about her latest novel Gingerbread (Riverhead Books), I hadn’t eaten all day. After she spoke, I stood impatiently and desperately hungry in a long line, waiting for her to sign my copy of her book. When I reached her, I spouted the same nervous small talk I had reviled from those at the front of the line—“your writing is amazing…it absolutely terrifies me”—then reeled away, star-struck. When I paged through my newly-signed book on the walk home, my hungry mind startled at the inscription: “hope this is a feast,” the ellipsis like a wink, inviting me to question exactly what kind of feast this book was going to be.

In Oyeyemi’s novel, gingerbread (the book’s literal “feast”) is many things: a source of cheap, efficient sustenance; an unwanted gift for unwilling friends; a haunted metaphor for childhood; a fairy story’s sinister shadow; a pathway to a mythical land; a poison; an addictive substance; a vessel for suicide and self-harm; a magical bridge to a place of transcendence. The gingerbread is described as delectable yet tasting inexplicably of revenge, and Harriet, Gingerbread’s protagonist, makes two variants of the treat: “the kind your teeth snap into shards and the kind your teeth sink into. Both are dark and heavy and look like they’d give you a stomachache. So what?” And this novel is an intersection of both variants: at times it is a light, puckish ode to the power of fairy tales, and at times it is a shattering portrait of human isolation and exploitation, but it is always “dark and heavy”—and so what?

The premise of the novel is nebulous. Gingerbread is a story about a dysfunctional family at times, a story about the commodification of childhood innocence at others, and often it is somewhat incoherent. The whole thing is carefully sheathed in an intergenerational storytelling framework, as a mother tells her quasi-suicidal daughter—and the teenage girl’s four dolls—the eccentric tale of her youth.

Much of the book is backstory set in Druhástrana, a mysterious land of “indeterminable geographic location…nobody seems to actually come from there or know how to get there.” This of course excludes Harriet, a native of Druhástrana, and her daughter Perdita, whose so-called suicide was attempted via gingerbread—here, the sweet treat is a hybrid poison and magic-tinted vessel for passage into the legendary Druhá city. Like her alleged suicide, there is something peculiar about Perdita, who is more sprite than girl and seems “in danger of losing her right to corporeality.” In fact, most of Gingerbread’s characters seem rooted in fabulous (and fishy) lore. Yet despite their elfin glimmer, the story’s magic gracefully winds together even the most ephemeral wisps of character into the novel’s intricate plot.

When its plot and shimmering phantasma is pared away, Gingerbread is ultimately an ode to friendship. The novel features a protagonist as refreshingly unconsumed by finances, career, or romance as she is “saving herself for great amity.” She maintains that “half of the hatred that springs up between people is rooted in this mistaken belief that there’s any human relationship more sacred than friendship,” offering an alternative to the commonly toted reciprocity model of relationships. Gingerbread suggests a new paradigm of friendship in which you don’t expect anything in return for your devotion—nor do you resent the recipient of your one-sided affection.

At her book event, Oyeyemi prefaced the discussion about Gingerbread with a plea against any big, philosophical-type questions about the book. Yet metaphor and allegory are woven deeply within Gingerbread’s hearty fibres—and its overtones about myth, consumerism, and capitalism make these “big, philosophical” questions impossible to avoid. Gingerbread is the kind of book that defamiliarizes the modern experience, but rather than doing so with the conventional trappings of a fantasy novel—by layering the tale in scales and fairy dust and all the other trappings of world-building—it does so through the strange sensibilities of the characters. When the likes of Gingerbread’s Clio Kercheval—a woman with a changeling daughter who runs a business employing young, plump “Gingerbread Girls” who entertain adult patrons with the allure of eternal childhood—suffers from the same plights of vanity and greed that ravage the reader’s society, the reader more keenly realizes the ludicrousness of her world. Clio gobbles up pills for dinner in a superficiality evocative of the society in which she lives. Druhástrana is a parody of modern shallowness, with museum gates sculpted into a microcosmic display of what’s inside, offering citizens the museum experience minus the time commitment. Druhástrana’s absurd culture proves a garish and unflattering mirror for the reader’s modern world.

Similarly, Druhástrana harbours an unapologetic reverence of money, satirizing the backward logic of boundless capitalism. Druhástrana follows the capitalistic tenet that underlies modern North American economics: that citizens can “find the strength to live out a lifetime under the most dire privations as long as there’s a chance, however irrational, that he or she could someday stumble upon some abundance that’s accompanied by the right to keep it all for himself.” Stated in this matter-of-fact yet nonsensical way, the concept appears preposterous, critiquing our own twisted justification and acceptance of class hierarchies and insidious greed. Gingerbread’s “numbers game” satirizes the dogged and almost always fruitless pursuit of extravagant wealth; in this farcical lottery, winning numbers are announced haphazardly on Thursdays. For example, the nine numbers may be spelled out on the boards of nine random divers, allowing you to stumble across your victory only if all nine of them happen to surface the very moment you walk past the beach. Even if you somehow do win, you may find out that the unlikely display was showing last week’s winning numbers, rendering you too late to collect your reward. Or you may end up with a risibly worthless prize, like Harriet’s pitiful wheat-sheaf ring. The novel is cleverly pointing out that what one expects to be the biggest win of one’s life always comes too little or too late.

Despite all its cultural criticism, Gingerbread excavates heaps of beauty from contemporary culture, as well, steeping the narrative in bursts of effortless diversity and freshness. Characters’ appearances are unconventional, as the work offers eclectic fashions, celebrates all body types, and thoroughly dismantles racial expectations. Gingerbread predicts a future free from a heteronormative chokehold, one that is content with its own fluidity and capaciousness. The milieu feels comforting and safe, easy to breathe within, and is certainly a relief from the constricting stereotypes that construct and confine so much fiction. Gingerbread projects both modern shortcomings and modern successes onto a work of fantasy without becoming futuristic; rather, the novel offers the reader another way of looking at the world she already inhabits.

When trying to pinpoint the genre of Gingerbread, I was stumped; it blurs fantasy and reality with characteristic Oyeyemi uncanniness, questioning assumed boundaries and allowing space for something a little more enchanting. A work of liminal fantasy, Gingerbread fills up the interstices of the real world with myth and magic. With references to modern social media and Tyra Banks’s “smizing,” Gingerbread is clearly situated in our world—and yet its cadences and mannerisms are off-putting. The novel’s bizarre brand of fantasy is thrilling yet daunting, and the otherworldly splendour of Oyeyemi’s work never ceases to surprise and delight readers. While some may find Gingerbread at times too avant-garde or topical, Oyeyemi uses language with a reverence and originality that few contemporary writers can match, and the effect is gorgeous. Like Harriet’s gingerbread, the book is “a square meal and a good night’s sleep and a long, blood-spattered howl at the moon rolled into one”—a difficult read, yet simple; nuanced, yet light-hearted; complex, yet cathartic; but, overall it is a feast—and a delicious one at that.


Isabel Armiento

Isabel Armiento studies English at the University of Toronto, where she is Editor-in-Chief of a campus newspaper and actively involved in several other campus publications. Her work has been published or is pending publication in The Mighty Line, Lemon Theory, Adroit Journal, Antithesis Journal, and elsewhere, and she won third place in the Hart House Literary Competition for prose fiction.

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