Review of the novel Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

She has lived in Paris, Berlin, Budapest or America, and since 2014 she lives in Prague, where she was drawn to the story of Gustav Meyrink’s Golem. However, she was born in 1984 in Nigeria, from where she moved with her parents to London when she was four years old. One of Britain’s hottest young authors, Helen Oyeyemi, doesn’t provide much conversation and the media aside. So we talk less about her than she deserves.

She published her first novel before turning twenty, and today she is seven. Until now, Czechs could only know about a girl named Boy. Gingerbread, published by Argem, was recently added to it and translated into Czech by Petr Onufer. He is currently nominated for the Magnesia Litera Award for Translation.

The two seemingly unrelated titles – A Girl Named Boy set in 1950s and 1960s America, Gingerbread Today – combine both an interest in legends, fairy tales, archetypes and myths, and an unbridled imagination who constantly breaks the boundary between magic and reality. However, while the Girl Named Boy relied on motifs from Snow White and, to a lesser extent, Little Red Riding Hood or Cinderella, in Gingerbread the author apparently used the Gingerbread story House. And also allusions to classic literature from Honoré de Balzac via Émila Zola to Repentance by the contemporary Ian McEwan, as well as current pop cultural references: the book makes reference to the singer Lady Gaga, the selfie or speed dating.

The result is a prose that, like the best works of the now-canonical Englishwoman Angela Carter, mixes banality and black humor, or – as heard on respected American radio NPR – a “narcotically original novel”. . Or, to quote the New York Times, “sometimes sinister, very often bizarre, and always a completely magical story.”

It begins as a sort of family comedy, depicting the daily life of a single-parent family currently living in Britain: grandmother Margot, teacher and mother Harriet plus her daughter, 16-year-old Perdity. London is generally “cool” at first, but they quickly move away from it to the perhaps imaginary land of Harriet’s youth. The logic of cause and effect ceases to apply in the novel, and the detailed explanation diminishes at twisty turns. What we usually understand as reality acquires a very gothic touch thanks to the ghosts that emerge from the past.

From the house in London, where they can be haunted, perhaps not frightened, the heroines are transferred to another house, located somewhere in Western Bohemia, and they also visit Prague for a short time – they are impressed with the cakes with whipped cream and a high concentration of smoke in the pubs. They will then find themselves in the third house, the most mysterious of all.

Many parallels to America under Donald Trump can be seen in the text, as well as the taste of Central Europe. There is also an “alleged nation-state of unspecified latitude and longitude” called Andersajtánie. It relies on social mechanisms like a referendum, “declared because the locals put up very hard with more and more foreigners constantly pouring into the country” – which in turn may be Brexit. Andersajtánie is officially recognized in the book only by the Czech Republic, while “literal interpretations of the claim that Andersajtánie actually exists may stem from a deep misunderstanding of Czech humor”.

Gingerbread therefore has a totally non-explicit political dimension. It mainly affects wealth, poverty and exploitation – it is no coincidence that Grandma Margot and Harriet leave Andersajtania “as cargo”, that is, as slaves. Second, the text deals with the intricacies of so-called female power. Three generations of women pass down a family recipe for gingerbread, which states that “eating is like eating revenge – like biting directly into the true heart of someone who has hurt their love so badly and thinks ‘he would succeed’. Gingerbread is therefore symbolically equivalent to blessings and curses. And women’s bonds, including friendships, in the book, in addition to solidarity, also represent danger and struggle.

While the sexuality in the text resonates with motifs of pregnancy, abortion and lesbian love, the author sees race – like African American Toni Morrison – as the norm in the sense that all the main characters have skin “brown as the bark of trees”. . However, she is not interested in gender or ethnicity: she wants to understand questions of identity, migration, borders and transformation in her own way. Without threatening to enter a “black” feminist box prepared in advance. Also, according to Oyeyemi, she didn’t study literature or creative writing for fear that the more terms we use, the further we stray from the essence of fiction.

Likewise, his novel is not easy to analyze; after all, even in the English-speaking world it was not unequivocally accepted. It’s probably not the author’s best work, according to the critics: the characters seem too allegorical and some plots recombined or unnecessary. The reader does not always know who is telling what, to whom and why – and for example, it is not clear why certain parts of the story still have to comment on dolls with names like Sago, Bonnie, Primulka or Lollipop.

Cover of the novel Gingerbread. | Photo: Argo publishing house

Helen Oyeyemi, on the other hand, has never sought out fast readers – in Gingerbread she believes that the art of adventurous TV series exists in the world only to distract people from the need for systemic change. . And many of its observations seem surprisingly relevant here and now, which, in addition to the obvious Czech dimension, is certainly another reason why Argo published this title in a prestigious British-American authors’ edition.

Readers may be offered another reason to open the book, namely exceptionally rich language. One is richly baroque, then austerely minimalist, but in any case close-fitting and beautiful – and furthermore imposing even disproportionate demands on the translator, who must win with all sorts of puns or nuts. This is why Petr Onufer was nominated for the Magnesia Litera Prize for his translation into Czech. Because of the elegantly organic solutions he has chosen and the flowing sentences and clauses that result, he is absolutely right.


Helen Oyeyemi: Gingerbread
(Translated by Petr Onufer)
Argo Publishing House 2021, 256 pages, 298 crowns.

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