The Icarus Girl

icarus girlThe 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.

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8 Responses to The Icarus Girl

  1. This sounds like quite an adventurous and a talented piece of work. I can see how it might lead a person to want to read more, though as you said, you had read the later ones first.

    • Jenny says:

      I like to think it would have interested me enough to go on to her other work! It’s got flashes of real brilliance, though the work as a whole is flawed.

  2. Deb says:

    I’m going to sound like an awful curmudgeon, but I just read Oyeyemi’s BOY, SNOW, BIRD and, while it was undoubtedly original and beautifully written, I found the whole retelling/recasting of the Snow White/wicked stepmother fairy tale palled about halfway through. I’d say Oyeyemi has found a way to creatively blend mythic and fairy tale tropes with reality, but I’d also advise that you really have to be in the mood for that sort of thing.

    • Jenny says:

      Myself, I’m a complete sucker for that kind of thing — almost always in the mood for it. I love retellings of fairy tales and myths. The way Oyeyemi plays with them has always pleased me.

  3. Teresa says:

    I read this back when it was fairly new–before her other books were published–and I liked it well enough, but I doubt I would have sought out her later books if I hadn’t seen such good reviews of them. There were lots of things that I thought were interesting about this book, but as a whole, it didn’t quite land for me.

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t think it’s nearly as good as the other things I’ve read by her, that’s absolutely true. But I do think it’s miles more interesting, even with those flaws, than most of what’s out there. Woman’s reach exceeds her grasp, or what’s a heaven for?

  4. Like Teresa, I don’t know that I’d have pressed on with Oyeyemi after reading The Icarus Girl if I hadn’t been so eager to get to White Is for Witching (which remains my favorite of hers). It’s a very debut novel. Her second one, The Opposite House, is also clearly the work of a young author, but Oyeyemi’s voice has gotten so much more assured in that one. It’s been really fun watching her develop as a writer. (With er, a fairly major exception at the end of Boy Snow Bird.)

    • Jenny says:

      I can’t remember why everyone is so hmphy about Boy Snow Bird. I will have to read it myself and see what I think. As I said to Deb, I love retellings of fairy tales, and I’m surprised she made such a grand misstep as to make so many people roar about it, considering.

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