Saturday, August 24, 2013

Review of "The Icarus Girl" by Helen Oyeyemi

Title: The Icarus girl
Author: Helen Oyeyemi
Genre: Fiction/Magical Realism
Publishers: Anchor Books
Pages: 334
Year: 2005
Country: Nigeria

In 2002, when I was still in secondary school, I read a magazine article about a young Nigerian girl called Helen Oyeyemi who had written a critically acclaimed first novel manuscript at the tender age of 18! I was blown away with amazement. It had not even been published yet and it was already being labeled “critically acclaimed!” Of course, I instantly felt like reading it. The book was published to best seller success and wide global acclaim which launched Helen to literary fame. (She received positive reviews from the Oprah magazine, the Washington post book world, The Sunday Telegraph, Financial times, Essence etc.) I didn’t even bother looking for it in our Sahara-like Cameroonian bookshops. Years later, I’ve now read it after a very special book request from a big brother in the US who sent it to me. I also intentionally read it immediately after reading Ben Okri’s Booker prize winning novel, “The Famished Road.” And what a wise decision I made because both novels which are written by two Nigerians of Yoruba extraction, belong to the same genre and are a little bit similar. But Helen’s work is startlingly original and has a totally different angle from Okri’s.  

Unlike “The Famished Road” which is inspired by Nigerian mythology, set only in Nigeria and capitalizes on the belief of the African, “The Icarus girl” is set in both London and Nigeria (Ibadan). It transcends the belief of the African and that of the European to the culture contrast between them. It is also inspired by both Nigerian mythology (Yoruba tradition) and Greek mythology. The title of the book itself stems from Greek mythology, from the legend of Icarus. Icarus was the son of Daedalus and they had been imprisoned in King Minos’ labyrinth in the island of Crete. Daedalus fashions wings partly made of wax for Icarus and himself so they could escape. As they fly away, Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, but he disobeys his father. When the sun melts the wax on his wings, Icarus plunges into the Aegean sea and drowns. Another synonym for the name/word “Icarus” is “mythical being,” so I could break down the title of the novel to “The mythical girl.” Nothing about Icarus’ story is mentioned in the book, I’ve simply been an ardent lover of the Greek mythological stories since my childhood.

“The Icarus girl” is written in the third person narrative unlike “The famished Road’s” first person. The story is about a sentient, gloomy child, an 8-year-old biracial girl called Jessamy Harrison (or Jess for short) born to an English father, Daniel Harrison and a Nigerian Yoruba mother, Sarah who is a novelist. Jess possesses an extraordinary imagination and is really intelligent but also weird, really odd; she unexpectedly screams in a high pitched voice at home/school sometimes for no reason, she hides in cupboards, she has no friends so she has a hard time fitting in at school. And when her Year Five mates come to tease her, she bites one of them with her teeth!

And If Jess is weird then the only girl she befriends on a visit to her mother’s homeland, Nigeria (Bodija house, Ibandan) is even weirder and weirdest. She’s a ragged little Nigerian girl about Jess’ age called Titiola, but since Jess couldn’t quite pronounce the Yoruba name, “Titiola,” she called her Tilly Tilly. Tilly Tilly seems likeable to Jess at once because they read and appreciate poetry, have a nice conversation and go to the Amusement park together; they click. But she’s got oddities and even mystery about her right from the start. Tilly Tilly’s got almost pupil less eyes, is very shy and lives alone in the deserted Boys quarters of Jess’ grandfather, Gbenga’s house with no parents. She mimics Jess’ voice exactly, she opens closed doors simply by pushing them, she knows about poetry even without reading it. In fact, she seems to have an apparent knowledge about everything. She seems to have the ability to do anything; she appears, disappears, (she even later makes jess invisible) and when Jess returns to London, she pays Jess a visit shortly after and tells her their family just moved to London too. Of course, Jess enjoys the magical acts and when she asks Tilly Tilly how she does all that, Tilly who has a bad temper gets angry and doesn’t tell her, so Jess lets her be. Jess also realizes that she is the only person who can “see” Tilly Tilly. She is invisible to everybody else except Jess, so Tilly Tilly is actually “The “mythical being” girl,” thus the book’s title…The Icarus girl.” This is just like “The Famished Road’s” abiku main character, Azaro who is the only one who “sees” mythical beings and ghosts. It is also like the wizards in the “Harry Potter series” who “see” Hogwarts when the muggles can’t.

Jess seeks revenge on her enemies through magical Tilly Tilly by tormenting them, “let’s get her,” a sort of way to cause havoc on people and send them into a bad trance. But as Tilly Tilly gets more violent, (destroying Sarah’s computer which contained her literary work, bathroom mirror) with the blame naturally falling on Jess because nobody can see Tilly Tilly, Jess starts asking many questions but bad tempered Tilly Tilly doesn’t give her any answers. Jess realizes she doesn’t actually know her ‘friend’ at all. Tilly Tilly tells her that she, Jess once had a twin sister, Fern, who had died when they were babies. So Jess asks her mother about it. Sarah gets startled since she had never told Jess about Fern, tells Daniel that Jess is an abiku (spirit child) and communicates to her father in Nigeria, Gbenga wondering why they had not done Fern’s Ibeji carving back in Nigeria. Oyeyemi delves into Yoruba mythology about the belief of twins. They belong to three worlds; the physical world, spirit world and the bush (wilderness.) If one twin died, the family would make a carving to Ibeji, the god of twins so that the other twin would be happy. It was the carving of the grown up version of the dead twin which was done for the sake of appeasement, so that its spirit would not torment the living one if it was angry that the other twin was still alive.

Tilly Tilly assures Jess that she is actually her good friend and other sort of spiritual twin but Jess begins to reproach her and Tilly Tilly’s visits become increasingly haunting as Jess also faces cultural dislocation. Sarah’s proposal to see a psychologist, Dr Mckenzie proves futile. He thinks Jess has got an internalized imaginary companion or alter ego which spurs Jess to become so uncooperative with him but Jess makes a true friend, Shivs, Dr Mckenzie’s daughter. Tilly Tilly “gets” Jess’ father and “gets” Shivs (she never liked Shivs from the start) then proceeded to demand a body in the physical world to inhabit; Jess’ body, so she ‘enters’ into Jess and assumes her body for short periods. Before her ninth birthday, the Harrison family travel to Nigeria again and the Ibeji carving is done but Jess is no more. Tilly Tilly gets into her body completely and a previously non Yoruba speaking Jess all of a sudden starts speaking fluent Yoruba. Only Jess’ grandfather understands what is going on and decides to take ‘Jess’ to a witchdoctor leading to a remarkable culture clash with Jess’ English father who refuses. Sarah’s effort to escape the hostile argument with her daughter to Lagos leads to an accident and ‘Jess’ is injured and unconscious. Gbenga places the Ibeji carving near her hospital bed and Jess’ spirit trapped in the wilderness has to fight her way back into her body with Fern’s help in a breathtaking finale.

Oyeyemi’s beautifully crafted and lyrically executed story sparkles with a remarkable unpredictable plot and very brilliant language. Her voice is soft, very lyrical and childlike; very playful in this book, a “not-so-serious” voice and way of telling her story. She has a refreshing sense of humour too for the book really had me laughing sometimes. But it also had this feature of going very dark and grim. There are also a handful of themes in the novel; the classic literary theme of doubles (both real and spiritual), self-identity, poetry/prose writing, redemption, revenge, psychological pursuit, nonchalance towards Religion, cultural dislocation, culture clash etc But the theme of poverty which is central in “The Famished Road” is conspicuously absent in this book. Don’t get me wrong though, I strongly feel Ben Okri’s novel is better than this one and he is a genius writer. Yet I enjoyed “The Icarus girl” more than “The Famished Road.” I had a love-hate feeling for Okri’s work but a love-love feeling for Oyeyemi’s work. To conclude, I would say it is recommended reading for magical realism/surrealism fans. Forget the age at which she wrote it. “The Icarus girl” impressed me more than some books I’ve read from a couple of fifty-year-olds. And I would be very honest to say I’m in my mid twenties but I haven’t written anything yet which is better than what she wrote in her debut novel at eighteen.

About the author: Helen Oyeyemi was born in Nigeria in 1984 and moved to London at the age of four. She completed “The Icarus girl” just before her nineteenth birthday while diligently studying for her A-level exams. She is a member of the class of 2006 at Cambridge University, where she studied social and political sciences. She has written and published three other novels after “The Icarus girl.”