The Icarus Girl is Helen Oyeyemi’s debut novel, one she wrote when she was only 18 years old. I’ve read two of her other novels (White is for Witching and Mr. Fox) and been entranced. This novel was much more obviously a beginner’s book, both simpler and smaller in scope, but it is also the debut of someone with tremendous powers. This is a reworking of the doppelganger story, the lurking twin; it tells about the damage caused along hairline fractures in culture, to adults as well as to children. If I’d read this novel first, I would definitely have wanted to read more.
Jessamy (Jess) Harrison, eight years old, is the daughter of an English father and a Nigerian mother. She’s a difficult child, given to hiding in cupboards, to writing precocious poems about death, to uncontrollable screaming fits, to fever. Her parents, understandably troubled, decide to take Jess to Nigeria for her birthday. Jess is excited:
But if she had known the trouble it would cause, she would have shouted “No!” at the top of her voice and run back into the cupboard. Because it all STARTED in Nigeria, where it was hot, and, although she didn’t realise this until much later, the way she felt might have been only a phase and she might have got better if only
(if only if only if ONLY Mummy)
she hadn’t gone.
In Nigeria, Jess wanders into a deserted part of her grandfather’s compound, and meets a little girl named Titiola. (Jess can’t pronounce it, and calls her new friend TillyTilly: a doubling name, a twinning name.) There’s something off about TillyTilly from the beginning: her eyes are so dark as to be pupilless, and she is too tall and too small at the same time. But Jess needs a friend, and she and TillyTilly have adventures, going into forbidden and impossible places together.
And when Jess returns to England, there is TillyTilly. (“Me and my parents have just moved in around the area,” says TillyTilly, but no parents are ever in evidence.) Gradually, Oyeyemi weaves nightmare in with this bright realism. TillyTilly is casually savage, offering to “get” Jess’s enemies in ways that are increasingly more violent. I had begun to suspect long ago that TillyTilly was an imaginary friend, but Oyeyemi leaves it frighteningly ambiguous, as TillyTilly turns against Jess herself: stories of lost selves, dead twins, and shattered cultures surface briefly and are lost in fever and fear. Neither the British way (psychology) nor the Nigerian way (ibeji, the statue made of a lost twin to ease its passage in the afterlife) work for a half-and-half child. This reminded me of why Oyeyemi titled the book The Icarus Girl. It’s sometimes hard to remember that Daedalus didn’t just tell his son not to fly too high — he also told him not to fly too low, too close to the sea. It had to be an impossible middle path for the half-and-half child. He was bound to fail.
As I said, this is obviously the work of a talented author — but equally obviously a debut book. Jess (and perhaps, in flashes, TillyTilly) is the only character who’s fully fleshed-out. Her parents, her therapist, her Nigerian family are all pretty flat. The prose is heavily stylized, coming from an eight-year-old’s perspective, and is both too childish and too precocious to swallow easily. She isn’t playing with forms and tropes here, as she will later in Mr. Fox. Yet with all its faults, this book is much more interesting than vast swathes of highly-praised literary fiction. Writing between the natural and the supernatural, Oyeyemi is superb at showing how the pain of fractured culture radiates out along Jess’s fault lines.