It has been a crazy month, so I apologize about the lack of posting. Good excuses all around: a new job, an unexpected freelancing review opportunity that will be ongoing, planning a trip to NYC, and in more mysterious news, I've been working on some new and different things for the blog, so look for that upcoming right here!
Of course, I've been reading all along, and I've got some good books to review in the pipeline, so I hope you'll stay tuned.
Not to be outdone by The New York Times, who printed their review of Oyeyemi's collection in the Sunday paper today (I've yet to read it, but they said nothing but good things about her previous books), here's my thoughts on this lovely and strange first short story collection.
"Before assuming ownership of a key, you should look at it closely. Not only because you may need to identify it later but because to look at a key is to get an impression of the lock it was made for, and by extension, the entire establishment surrounding the lock" (298).
While this statement—from the last story in the collection, "Freddy Barrandov Checks... In?"—refers to an actual key for a hotel room, it really struck me as a line that summed up one of the major themes of the entire book. Keys string their way through all the stories, whether they are actual keys, like key cards to hotel rooms, or something more metaphorical. Sometimes the keys are almost incidental to the stories, just an everyday object that happens to be around, but they are always there, consistently reminding the reader of the the secrecy and history that they contain. Entire worlds can be revealed by a key, as shown in the first story, "Books and Roses," where two women uncover secrets about their past with the help of two keys—but as this story shows, a key is useless unless you know which door it unlocks.
Many of the stories blend fairytale elements—a puppet come to life with shades of Pinocchio, a Red Riding Hood cape and wolf, and one of the stories even begins with that age-old phrase: "Once upon a time..." Oyeyemi's previous novel, Boy, Snow, Bird was a fairytale fusion as well, and that's not the first time she's ventured into this territory. In this book, I was especially reminded of Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, which rewrites certain fairytales in a darker, more tactile, and definitely more sensual and bloody way, but I think that Oyeyemi has gone even further, stripping the fairytales down to only the barest of their recognizable parts. The stories in the collection as a whole seem separated by worlds—one discussing a vengeful tyrant drowning anyone who defies him in murky pits, while another has a sub-plot with an almost socio-political look at how social media might handle a famous singer beating up a hooker. Somehow, there's really no disconnect in that; the prose stays so even throughout.
What I thought was really interesting was how Oyeyemi really messed with the structure of these stories (buh-bye Freytag's pyramid,) pulling the climax to the last paragraph of the story, dumping a big reveal on the reader and then pushing you out of the story. Or, the climax would come early, so most of the story would end up being falling action. This was really a disruption of the perfect fairytale structure even though many of the stories held onto their fairytale-esque nature. And, I think the structuring is very deliberate. Oyeyemi holds all the keys, like a prison warden, and we are all under her control while we read. We get the information parceled out to us as needed, doors being unlocked only when she wants us to go through them.
It's obvious reading (and re-reading) these stories that this isn't the first time that Oyeyemi has thought about keys and their multitudes. I think that keys are hidden in all of her works, though this is the first time she has written about them so overtly. In White is for Witching, the moments narrated by the house especially are the key (pun intended) to uncovering the truth about the main characters. And then in Boy, Snow, Bird, she makes you use what you know about the fairytales of Snow White, the Pied Piper, and so on to fill in the gaps in your knowledge of the story. Keys are not always tangible, but that doesn't mean we are left grasping at straws.
Characters also flit between stories; one character might be on the peripheries of one story but then will be the main voice of the next. It is interesting to see their stories develop, especially since not all of the stories have an entirely rounded ending. I left the collection feeling a bit overwhelmed, but also very fulfilled and even intoxicated—Oyeyemi can do that to you.
Reading Oyeyemi at times can be a bit like swimming in rough water: if you struggle too much you're bound to panic and keep getting seawater in your lungs and risk drowning. Sometimes it's better to just relax and float along on the prose, just taking it all in. You won't regret the experience.
Get your copy of WHAT IS NOT YOURS IS NOT YOURS
Check out Helen Oyeyemi's other books
Connect with Helen Oyeyemi
Connect with the Publisher, Riverhead Books (Penguin Random House)
Website Facebook Instagram Twitter
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.