Review by Will Preston
Late in Helen Oyeyemi’s beguiling new collection of stories, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, a character becomes obsessed with a film. It’s a short “spectral wisp” of a movie, a story about a brother and sister in Cold War Russia. The siblings, who are propaganda writers, are given a test by the Party. Following instructions written on a wall in an abandoned house, they each begin circulating rumours that the other is a spy. They spin tales of disloyalty and staged liaisons, fiction upon defamatory fiction. But as they do so, their own relationship disintegrates, until the two lose the ability to distinguish sincerity from falsehood. Is it possible that the other really believes the horrible smears they’re writing? If not, how can they tell? “Tension darkens each frame,” Oyeyemi writes. By the end,
“you can neither see into these siblings’ lives nor out. Neither, it seems, can they. The film seems to be a judgment upon the written word and the stranglehold it assumes. Woe to those who believe in what is written, and woe to those who don’t.” (296)
In those few lines, Oyeyemi provides what may be the perfect summation of her own work. The author of five previous novels, Oyeyemi weaves stories that are at once familiar and completely alien, laden with thematic resonance and yet almost gleefully inscrutable: fairy tales turned inside out with blood and sinews exposed. Boy, Snow, Bird built a racial parable from the bones of Snow White; Mr. Fox inverted the story of Bluebeard into a commentary on gender violence. What Is Not Yours, Oyeyemi’s first collection of short fiction, is every bit as singular. Her characters are recognizable in the same way as figures in a dream. One dons a red cloak and has an encounter with a wolf, though she is not Little Red Riding Hood (much to the disappointment of the wolf). Another is a puppeteer who wakes to find all of his human limbs have been stolen by his puppets and replaced with wooden ones. Most of these characters are lost, and all of them are searching. None of them, though, can quite say for what.
Reading Helen Oyeyemi is a bit like wandering through a hall of mirrors, never quite sure what’s real and what’s illusion, what leads to the next room and what’s merely a reflection of your own self. The nine stories in What Is Not Yours are serpentine. They wind past rich characters and evocative detail, ending up miles from where they began and never where you expect. Often they end precisely where others might start. “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” begins as a story about a man feeding his friend’s Siamese fighting fish in a house of mysteriously locked doors, and ends with his stepdaughter summoning an ancient Greek goddess to torment an unrepentant pop star who physically assaulted a prostitute. The wonderful “Drownings” opens with a brilliant plan to kidnap the “beautiful…and exceedingly vague” daughter of a ruthless tyrant—which then never actually takes place. (155) A married woman in “Presence” partakes in an experiment where she is estranged from her husband and faced, literally, with a future she never had, a son who appears and ages fifty years in a matter of days. Locks and keys figure prominently, sealed entrances that, like Oyeyemi’s writing, only lead to more questions when finally passed through. Like the character who opens and closes a door over and over again, hearing voices on the other side, these stories beg to be read twice, three times over, teasing the satisfying click of resolution. But each time they only slip further out of reach, wraith-like.
What Is Not Yours might not be the best place to begin with Oyeyemi’s work; its labyrinthine narratives and deliberately unresolved mysteries may drive some to frustration. (Those new to her would do themselves well to seek out Mr. Fox or the luminescent Boy, Snow, Bird.) Yet even the most bewildered reader can’t help but bask in the exquisiteness of Oyeyemi’s prose. Her sentences are things to be savoured, like a rare delicacy you let dissolve in your mouth for as long as possible before swallowing. One could fill an entire review simply with small gems of language, be it the girl “with eyes like flint arrows” and a “chin set against the world,” (101) or the tyrant who visits a prisoner in his cell to “taunt him with weather reports,” (170) or the hotel where “guests can request and receive anything, anything at all,” except, “for some reason, an iguana-skin wallet.” (285) Oyeyemi’s writing is filled with moments like these, unexpected flashes of beauty and wit and mystery that make you want to carry the book into the next room just to find somebody to read them to. I may have, once or twice.
What these nine stories mean is worthy of debate—whether they mean anything at all, or if the lack of meaning is the meaning. Perhaps, like her spectral wisp of a spy film, they’re simply a sly commentary on the fallacy of language, the stranglehold of the written word, the dangers of treating text as a padlock that must, must be picked. (A lesson one narrator learns the hard way when she forces open a locked diary and unleashes—literally—a violent, billowing storm of words. As the title of the story suggests, “if a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that don’t you think.” (307) Language can offer great solace but also great pain. It is both our key to meaning and yet inherently meaningless—and parsing it for answers is a quest that may have no destination. Oyeyemi’s prose flickers invitingly, but is it a lantern or merely a will o’ the wisp bobbing away through the dark? Follow at your own risk, she seems to be saying. That way madness lies.
A native of Williamsburg, VA, Will Preston has since lived in Oregon, England, and the Netherlands. He has written extensively on travel, music, and history, and was most recently published in Rowan University’s Glassworks Magazine. He is currently an MFA candidate at the University of British Columbia.