My Rating: 3 stars
This is the third book I’ve read by Helen Oyeyemi, and as expected, it was beautifully written and fantastically confusing. I always come away from her books not quite sure what I just read. Like her other books, Gingerbread is a work of literary fiction and magical realism. Some of the story is set in modern London and part is in Druhástrana, a country that blends feudal and industrial societies and doesn’t exist as far as the rest of the world is concerned. There are dolls that talk, changelings, and a country that cannot be reached through normal means. But there are also a cliquish PTA and several exploitative business people, and a single mother trying to survive on a “Franken-wage” from several jobs. It’s a blend of the fantastic and reality.
The book focuses on Harriet and Margot Lee, a daughter and mother who originally come from Druhástrana, and Harriet’s teenage daughter Perdita. After an incident with Perdita nearly ends in tragedy, Harriet tells her daughter about her life in Druhástrana and how she came to London. Her history is closely tied with various members of the Kercheval family, who are partially responsible for the almost-tragedy. Another reviewer referred to the “slipperiness” of the book, and I think that’s the perfect word for it. It is a complicated story filled with complex characters, and the magical realism makes it particularly hard to figure out. Because of this, it won’t be for everyone. However, I loved seeing the layers of Harriet’s story unfold and slowly learning about each of the characters. The story is a journey, one that I felt was worth it to engage with these characters and the fascinating worldbuilding of Druhástrana.
The main star of the book is Oyeyemi’s writing. It’s so gorgeous and rich and the prose somehow manages to be modern and fairy tale-esque at the same time. I had the added pleasure of listening to the audiobook, which is read by Oyeyemi herself. If her writing is beautiful, then her voice is absolutely divine. She has a melodic voice that’s perfect for reading aloud, especially for a book that draws so heavily from fairy tales. So if you’re looking for a book with beautiful writing, this is the book for you. And if you want to listen to that beautiful writing, doubly so. Honestly, I would happily listen to Oyeyemi read off a grocery list.
I deliberated for a long time on whether to give this book three stars or four. Up until towards the end, I was going to give it four. However, I found that the last fourth or so feels like an entirely different book. The focus shifts off of Harriet’s past and onto resolving the present situation with the Kercheval’s, which makes perfect sense. What doesn’t quite make sense is how Oyeyemi does this. Several new concepts and characters are introduced at this point, which I found odd for so late in a story. It just didn’t quite seem to fit with everything else, and ultimately it left me a bit dissatisfied with the ending. I felt that Oyeyemi was trying to do something or say something with this part, but I couldn’t figure out what. It’s also not an ending that brings everything together to a definitive close, which many people may not like. I know I am personally more a fan of the neatly wrapped up ending found in Victorian novels.
Overall, this is a strange and beautifully written novel about family, friendship, and, of course, gingerbread. It won’t be for everyone, but it’s worth checking out if you enjoy magical realism.