Saturday, March 16, 2019

"Gingerbread" by Helen Oyeyemi

A very puzzling book, Gingerbread. I'm totally confused by it, but don't feel like rereading it to see if it makes more sense the second time through. I'm not sure I can write a coherent review, but here's a try at it. (If you don't like mine, there was a very coherent one in the New York Times last week.)

Is it fantasy? I suppose so. But it's also a kind of psychological mystery. Who are all the people in the seemingly real and fantasy places? What is their mysterious country of origin -- or maybe alternate reality -- named Druhástrana?

During the course of the book, which is sometimes narrated by one or another character, but sometimes more omniscient, we meet a rather large family with three main characters, Margot, the mother; Harriet, her daughter, and Perdita, Harriet's daughter. They tell each other maybe-real stories, interacting with Perdita's four dolls named Bonnie, Sago, Lollipop, and Prim, who seem to be alive and rather perceptive. We hear a long story about Margot and Harriet's early lives in Druhástrana and the unreal way they arrived in England. We hear a lot about how they make gingerbread from a maybe-magical formula, how they give it to various people. Are we supposed to know that the name Perdita means lost? Are we supposed to think of Shakespeare's character named Perdita in The Winter's Tale, who was rejected, lost, then found? I don't know.

Is gingerbread a real food or some type of magical substance? Right at the beginning, we learn about life in a rural part of Druhástrana, where the peasants are badly mistreated by landlords, and where gingerbread seems to sustain them:
"The gingerbread recipe is one of the lean-year recipes,... lean-year recipes are all about minimizing waste and making that which is indigestible just about edible. None of it tastes good save the gingerbread, which is exactly as delicious as it has to be. Blighted rye was the family’s food of last resort, and the jeopardy in using it was so great that it made Great-Great-Great-Grandma really think about how to take the edge off. Out came the precious ingredients, the warmth of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger, the best saved for last. After this gingerbread you might sweat, swell, and suffer, shed limbs. Often that didn’t happen— often the strenuous sifting of the grain expelled just enough ergot to make this an ordinary meal as opposed to a last meal. But just in case, just in case, gingerbread made the difference between choking down risk and swallowing it gladly." (pp. 8-9). 
Eventually, there's even "a gingerbread house, a classic gingerbread house at that, straight out of a story he’d been told as a child." (p. 259).

The time frame of Gingerbread seems to be mainly something like the present -- a time with cell phones, social media, and all the other modern conveniences -- the women of the story still make gingerbread, and it still potentially causes a variety of harm as well as delight. Characters make mysterious trips to Druhástrana, maybe out-of-body trips, maybe some other kind. A mysterious character named Gretel (who eventually seems to have a partner named Hansel)  appears and disappears in the lives of the characters. Gretel has strange eyes: "Gretel’s double pupils were evenly spaced, so it was possible to be disturbed by them without knowing quite what you were getting disturbed by." (p. 97).

Gretel articulates her philosophy: "All that happens when you grow up is that your ethics get completely compromised and you do extremely dodgy things you never imagined doing, apparently for the sake of others. Plus, growing up isn’t in my job description." Asked what her job is, she says: "Changeling." Is that "Changeling as in nonhuman replacement for a human child?" Gretel says: "Changeling as in changeling. We’ve had bad press." (p. 140).

Does this paragraph explain it?
"'Oh,' Harriet says aloud to Perdita, 'what am I thinking? That you went to Druhástrana, that you went there somehow without leaving this bed . . . even though you would have had to leave this bed to get there, Perdita, because as I have been saying all your life, Wikipedia doesn’t get to decide which places have actual geographic existence and which don’t. But OK, playing along for now, I seem to be thinking that you made it across and that Gretel was there. My Gretel. She saw you. She knew who you were, helped you, maybe. She gave you her ring. And she said— now let me see, what is it I’m wishing she’d said: Tell Harriet Lee I am still her friend . . . something like that . . .'" (p. 53). 
There's a lot of mystery in the book, especially around Gretel. She's maybe appearing and disappearing more than one thinks throughout the novel I just don't really get it, but I think that's how it's intended. I guess it's not one of my favorite recent reads. Maybe I'm just distracted by the terrible news of the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, today -- so horrifying.


Tina said...

That sounds like a Neil Geiman book. Don’t think I’ll get this one although that bird on the cover would have been the reason I picked it up, for an initial look.
Yes, what went on in New Zealand was horrible. Such hate in this world, I don’t understand it.

Beth F said...

This is on my list.

Mae Travels said...

@Tina -- I was hoping for a Neil Gaiman type book. I LOVE his work. Unfortunately, this is not like him at all!

jama said...

This one certainly sounds strange. It probably requires more concentration than I'm willing to give it. Will check out the NYT review too.

Carole said...

Thanks - I won't be getting this one. Cheers

chocolate and croissants said...

This does not seem to have much appeal.

Jeanie said...

Well, I think I can pass on this one! Thanks for the review and head's up!