Welcome to Gingerbread, Helen Oyeyemi’s surreal and delicious novel featuring talking dolls with plans growing inside them, gingerbread fantasy experiences, and a country that may or may not exist …
Review by Marilla Marshall Sloan
I am a sucker for some magical realism, so Gingerbread’s synopsis hooked me from the start, but it was a weird and wonderful journey that I can’t quite put into words. It’s a complicated story steeped in folklore and history and with a plot that ducks and weaves and sends you to strange places.
I suppose that I have to try and explain it, if I can. The novel opens with a family of three women – Margot the grandmother, Harriet the mother and Perdita the daughter. Harriet pushes her homemade gingerbread on everyone, whether they like it or not, and has successfully used it as bribery in the past. Harriet’s home – shared with her emotionally distant daughter – is full of inexplicable quirks, like upholstery with a mind of its own. Even climbing the stairs to their apartment requires several rest breaks and some creative wiggling and scrambling. Harriet and Margot are refugees from Druhástrana, a country that may not exist. When Perdita tries to get to Druhástrana using some unconventional methods, Harriet begins to tell her daughter about their family’s origins. The tale begins with Harriet’s childhood on a farm surrounded by strange monuments and creatures that are turning into plants. From there, her story – which is regularly interrupted by Perdita’s opinionated dolls – takes some unexpected turns.
It’s been a while since I read something that I didn’t want to put down, but Gingerbread is just like the titular biscuit – it’s sweet, spicy and moreish. Fairy tale tropes are woven in and subverted throughout the story – but I can’t tell you much more than that without spoiling some of the delicious details. The three central protagonists (and Gretel, but I can’t tell you about her) each have distinct voices. Margot is pragmatic and money-focused while Harriet is a soft-hearted dreamer with a strong survival instinct. Perdita is something else altogether, a girl who has grown up in two worlds.
The complexity of the narrative, the fantastic characterisation of the three central women, and the vivid imagery are all reasons why this book works so well. But some of the best things about Gingerbread are its little hidden and unexpected quirks. From lottery ticket winners who must search for their numbers on the streets (or in other people), to a faux-fantasy gingerbread land where visitors can pay to be entertained by innocent farm girls – this novel is truly mind-bending in all the right ways.
If you don’t like your books filled with rich imagery and perplexing occurrences, then this one isn’t for you. Otherwise, I advise you to sink your teeth in and enjoy your taste of Gingerbread.
Postscript: Buzzfeed News has displayed the first chapter of Gingerbread on its website. Go and get yourself a tasty morsel.
Marilla Marshall Sloan is currently completing her Master’s in Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne, and regularly daydreams about wearing bold suits while editing novels for a living. She feels pretty chuffed to be part of the Antithesis Journal editorial team and enjoys subediting for Farrago Magazine. She prefers animals to people and misses eating cheese.