Where the sinister lurks beneath the surreal

Gingerbread (right), by British novelist Helen Oyeyemi (left), is a coming-of-age tale that celebrates the unconventional.
Gingerbread (right), by British novelist Helen Oyeyemi (left), is a coming-of-age tale that celebrates the unconventional.PHOTOS: MANCHUL KIM, PICADOR



By Helen Oyeyemi

Pan Macmillan/ Paperback/ 291 pages/$29.95/Books Kinokuniya

3.5 stars

An adult's fairy tale borrowing from classics such as Hansel And Gretel, Gingerbread is as deliciously unpredictable as it is surreal.

It is the sixth novel by 34-year-old Nigeria-born British novelist Helen Oyeyemi, who wrote her first book, The Icarus Girl, when she was 18, referencing the Greek mythological figure in a tale about an eight-year-old girl caught between realms.

The latest work of Oyeyemi, named one of Granta magazine's Best Young British Novelists in 2013, is a coming-of-age story that celebrates the unconventional.

Perdita, 16, attempts to make gingerbread like her mother Harriet, 34, in a bid to understand more about her mum, a single parent who grew up in the mysterious Druhastrana - an "alleged nation state of indeterminable geographic location".

But Perdita is hospitalised from eating the gingerbread, to which she added a strange additive. Gingerbread in the novel is no innocent indulgence, but made of something darker.

"It's like noshing on the actual and anatomical heart of somebody who scarred your beloved and thought they'd got away with it," as Oyeyemi writes of the experience of eating the gingerbread.

Perdita's hospitalisation gets Harriet telling her daughter the story of why she left her family's farmstead years ago.

Readers learn that Druhastrana is full of peculiarities, much like Harriet, who is always slightly overdressed and whose hair has turned grey prematurely.

Druhastrana, a name similar to a phrase meaning "the other side" in Czech, is not a friendly place.

It has a wheat field that lures animals into soft soil, trapping them in plant-vertebrae formations, and its landmarks include a jack-in-the-box that returns to the same spot each time it is moved.

Its dry well, believed to be exceedingly deep or haunted by a mysterious creature, turns out to be occupied by the landowner's runaway daughter Gretel, who becomes Harriet's best friend.

When Gretel's mother Clio Kercheval visits the Druhastrana farms, she sees opportunity in its youth and takes 33 young girls, including Harriet, to the city to work in a gingerbread theme park.

Like sinister Grimms' fairy tales, Gingerbread's magical realism is a thin veil for its darker observations of reality.

In the theme park, the girls do not just bake and box gingerbread, but also skip around grown-up visitors' chairs, shimmying their skirts and flashing underwear. In return, they are fed vitamin-and mineralenriched gruel and paid in fake money.

Harriet escapes when a distant relative takes her in and she goes on to meet Perdita's father eventually.

While there's no moral of the story per se, the novel is an evocative tale about adolescent friendship and the worlds of our younger selves that we have left behind.

If you like this, read: A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum (Harpercollins, 2019, $26.92, Books Kinokuniya), also about stories of immigrant women. It follows Isra, who is married off to America, and her daughter Deya, who learns jarring truths about her family's history.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2019, with the headline 'Where the sinister lurks beneath the surreal'. Subscribe