Now we come to the top 10 books in my list of memorable reading moments. I wanted to say a bit more with these, so I’ve split the ten in half. The top 5 will be up next Sunday, but for now, please enjoy numbers 10 through to 6. These are all books I have never forgotten, and doubt I ever will.Continue reading
This post is part of a series on the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award.
This story was first published in Helen Oyeyemi’s 2016 collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, a book that I found quite difficult to grasp as a whole, even though I’ve enjoyed Oyeyemi’s work in the past. It has been good to come to ‘if a book is locked’ afresh as part of the NSSA shortlist.
Oyeyemi’s protagonist (the “you” of her second-person narration) works analysing anonymised data on other organisations’ employees. A new colleague joins the company: Eva is subtly chic in a way that leads her female co-workers to try to compete. That’s until her lover’s wife visits the office to denounce her. At that point, the protagonist is the closest Eva has to a friend in her workplace. But the protagonist is preoccupied with what might be in Eva’s mysterious locked diary.
Oyeyemi always creates her own distinctive world with her words, even when she’s writing about somewhere ostensibly as mundane as an office. There are some neat parallels between the way Eva is treated by her colleagues; the protagonist’s family background; and the work that the company does. More, the ending blossoms into the beautiful strangeness typical of Helen Oyeyemi.
Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird (2014)
I joined Helen Oyeyemi’s career in the middle, so I know her for White is for Witching (2009), her haunted house story with its cast of merging narrative voices; and Mr Fox (2011?), her tale of a writer and his muse who journey through many iterations of the Bluebeard story. Both are complex works of fantasy, against which Boy, Snow, Bird might seem something of a curveball: it’s a subtler, ostensibly more straightforward piece of work, reminiscent perhaps of Aimee Bender’s fabulations.
We begin with a girl named Boy Novak, who escapes from her violent rat-catcher father in 1953 at the age of twenty, moving to the Massachusetts town of Flax Hill. There, she falls in love with a man named Arturo Whitman, who looks after his young daughter Snow, his wife Julia having died. Boy becomes pregnant by Arturo, and gives birth to a girl, Bird; at which point, Boy discovers the truth about the Whitmans: they are a black family who have been passing themselves off as white. Boy sends Snow off to live with her aunt, ‘just for a little while’ – which turns out to be a while longer than that.
Amongst all this are touches of the uncanny (Bird finds that her image does not appear in mirrors, for example) and references to the tale of Snow White. But a story like this could be told without those; so the question arises: what do they enable Oyeyemi to do? Indeed, how does she make them key to the whole book?
What these aspects of the novel do, I think, is affect how we read it. Look at Boy, Snow, Bird through the lens of Snow White, and the beats of the story are off: Boy would be the ‘wicked’ stepmother, but her heart is (at least partly) in the right place when she sends Snow away; Snow would be the banished princess, but she’s the only one of the three title characters whose viewpoint we never experience – and Bird is as much a ‘heroine’ as her sister. The situation is more complex than simple readings of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ will allow. Though the presence of the uncanny underlines that nothing is as it seems, everything is ultimately brought back to reality. Oyeyemi seems to use the trappings of the fantastic to point up that the real world is more complicated – which helps give Boy, Snow, Bird its power.
And here’s another book that puts a fairytale frame around the real world…
Robert Dinsdale, Gingerbread (2014)
In Belarus, a young boy’s dying mother takes him to live with his grandfather, her last wish to have her ashes scattered in the forest. His grandfather tells the boy stories: first the myth of Baba Yaga, but then also history twisted into myth – tales of the “great frozen city of Gulag”. As the months pass, boy and grandfather retreat from the outside world and into the forest, marking out a space as their own “gingerbread house” (the mother’s gingerbread being the main tangible reminder that the two have left of her); but, when the boy meets a girl who has moved into his old home, he realises that it may be time to return.
Gingerbread is a wonderfully atmospheric novel, in both Dinsdale’s depiction of the forest landscape, and in the way he translates the “real” and historical into fairytale. The boy and grandfather’s existence in the forest itself takes on a fairytale quality, to the point that there’s quite a perceptual jolt when external forces threaten to bring that existence to a halt.
Dinsdale’s novel is also a thoughtful examination of grief, and our reactions to life’s darkest moments – from individual bereavement to the long-term effects of an experience like being held in the Gulag. Dinsdale explores how we might continue to deal with such events as they fade from living memory into history, and comes to no simple conclusion. Gingerbread is all the more enjoyable for that complexity.
(This review first appeared at We Love This Book.)
The first taste I had of Helen Oyeyemi’s last novel, Mr Fox, was reading the embedded story ‘My Daughter the Racist’ on its own. So I’m prepared to accept that any given extract from an Oyeyemi novel is not necessarily going to represent the whole thing. A little digging around into her forthcoming Boy, Snow, Bird suggests that it’s based on the tale of Snow White – but this is only obliquely hinted in Oyeyemi’s Granta piece.
We are introduced to Boy Novak, a young bookstore-worker in mid-20th century America, who takes two teenage girls under her wing when they really ought to be at school. She lives with the Whitman family, which includes a six-year-old girl named Snow. I love the glimpses of Boy’s character that we get from her voice, and definitely look forward to a whole book narrated by her. There is the briefest hint of the supernatural at the end of Oyeyemi’s piece, with mention of a comics artist who appears to have an unusual view of time. The stage is set for another typically idiosyncratic novel Helen Oyeyemi, who’s become a writer I always want to read.
This is part of a series of posts on Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4. Click here to read the rest.
Last Saturday was the inaugural (and, I’m sure, not the last) ShortStoryVille festival in Bristol, in which Joe Melia of the Bristol Short Story Prize had kindly asked me to participate. When I arrived in Bristol that morning, the weather was grey, miserable and damp—in other words, perfect weather for staying in and reading a book. But it was great to see how many people had instead made the trip to the Arnolfini arts centre to hear short stories being read and discussed.
In the day’s first panel, the writer and critic Bidisha interviewed Sarah Salway, Alison MacLeod, and Janice Galloway about the art of writing short fiction. The three authors also read from their work, which really brought home to me how much their work seemed intended to be spoken; with Galloway’s piece especially, it was a completely different experience hearing the rhythms of her prose read aloud. Following on from the writing panel, we flipped it around to discuss reading short stories, and this was where I joined Scott Pack and Clare Hey in conversation with Tania Hershman; I think (and hope!) that we managed to say something interesting and useful.
The second half of the day began with Joe Spurgeon of the local magazine Venue interviewing Helen Oyeyemi and Stuart Evers about their latest books; if you haven’t read them, do, as both are very good indeed. Then came a series of readings from local writers, compèred by Bristol Prize chair of judges, Bertel Martin; the authors involved were Sarah Hilary, Patricia Ferguson, Gareth Powell, Emma Newman, Tania Hershman, and Amy Mason. Between their readings and recommendations, I have yet more books I want to investigate.
And after ShortStoryVille came the presentation of this year’s Bristol Short Story Prize. Congratulations to Emily Bullock, who won for her story ‘My Girl’; I read it on the train home, and it is a worthy winner. My thanks to Joe Melia and everyone else involved in ShortStoryVille for superb day; I am pleased to have been a part of it, and hope that it will turn out to have been the first of many. At a time when the BBC has announced plans to reduce the volume of short fiction programming on Radio 4, it’s good to have an event like ShortStoryVille to reassert that the short story is a vital art form.
Suzi Feay’s interview with Helen Oyeyemi at the Southbank Centre last night provided a good example of how hearing an author speak about her work can cast new light on a book. After an opening section in which Oyeyemi discussed her love of fairytales as a child, and how she first began writing (crossing out the parts of Little Women that she didn’t like, and writing in her own version—and in a library copy), she read the tale of ‘Mr Fox’ (the English version of Bluebeard), as collected by Joseph Jacobs in the 19th century; followed by the opening pages of her novel Mr Fox, which draws on different versions of the Bluebeard story. Even though I’d already read that book, hearing the author reading aloud from it was almost like encountering it for the first time again.
At the time of my original reading, I was struck by the sheer range of Mr Fox; but that was brought home to me again here when Oyeyemi talked about the many influences that went into the novel. It wasn’t just the many different versions of Bluebeard, or all the writers whose work had an impact (I’m reminded once again that I really should read Angela Carter); It was also that there were ideas in Mr Fox on which I hadn’t picked up—for example, Oyeyemi employed the 1930s New York setting partly from a love of noir, and partly to explore conceptions of masculinity that emerged from the First World War. The discussion made me want to go back to Mr Fox to see what else I could find in it.
Feay also asked Oyeyemi about her creative process, but I gained the distinct impression that even the author herself found it rather mysterious; Oyeyemi talked about her characters’ often doing surprising things, and how she attempted to study for an MFA, but found it too restrictive. When writing Mr Fox, she wasn’t even sure who would want to read that kind of book. I’m pleased that there are people who do, because I am coming to think that Oyeyemi’s is one of the most singular imaginations at work today; and this interview and reading only cemented that view.
At first, I was under the impression that Helen Oyeyemi’s fourth book was going to be a short story collection; then I heard it was a novel. Now I’ve read Mr Fox, and it turns out to be a mixture of the two: a novel built around (and largely told through) short stories. We begin in New York of 1938, when the writer St John Fox receives a visit from his (imaginary, yet in a sense perfectly real) muse Mary Foxe, who has come to protest at Fox’s propensity for killing off the women in his fiction. She takes him into a series of stories (some by Mary, others by Foxe), variations on the tale of Bluebeard, in which the two of them play a variety of roles; at the end of this odyssey, Mary hopes, Fox will have changed for the better.
Fox’s attitude is that fiction is fiction, and that what he writes has no bearing on what he thinks in the real world. Yet reality may be closer to Fox’s fiction than he realises; it’s clear from the first that he holds certain contempt for women, as evidenced by this comment about his wife Daphne:
She doesn’t complain about anything I do; she is physically unable to. That’s because I fixed her early. I told her in heartfelt tones that one of the reasons I love her is because she never complains. So now of course she doesn’t dare complain. (1)
Oyeyemi illustrates this connection by literally bringing the real and fictional together. When Fox wants Mary to shut up, it’s no idle request; as she’s a product of his mind, he can make her unable to speak—there’s nothing unreal about that in the context of the novel. And, since the book is almost all stories—indeed, we’re plunged into the stories before we have a proper handle on the ‘main’ narrative—the in-novel fiction becomes the default ‘reality’, and hence not as insignificant as Fox would like to think.
As well as examining how attitudes might slide into violence, the stories of Mr Fox explore different ways in which two people may love or otherwise relate to one another, from the yearning for a fairytale ending, to imagining what someone you’ve never met is like, to living in silence. The variety amongst the stories is quite something, as is the number of different registers in which Oyeyemi writes. One of the earliest tales stays close to the first setting, casting Mary Foxe as a budding writer who corresponds with St John Fox and may (or may not) eventually meet him; but others range further—we see Mary and Fox as the mistress of a finishing school for young men and the prisoner held captive in the school’s lake; a young woman in our present day who was scarred by her father’s murder of her mother, and the psychiatrist she meets on a flight; and even as the mother and soldier from ‘My Daughter the Racist’ (shortlisted for last year’s BBC National Short Story Award), which takes on a new layer of meaning as part of Mr Fox.
Fairytale and fabulation sit happily alongside more realist narratives, united by the two protagonists (or their analogues) and an underlying concern with stories—for it’s through the mode of story that Daphne Fox ultimately finds her voice, and St John Fox starts to learn better. Fox may start off thinking it’s only fiction, but, in Oyeyemi’s novel, there’s no ‘only’ about it.
At the start of this story, the protagonist’s eight-year-old daughter announces that, from now on, she is going to be racist — against soldiers, that is, their country being occupied by foreign troops. The woman lost her husband in a bombing, and now lives with his mother in her village, where she is the object of unwanted advances from a villager named Bilal. One day, her daughter stands up to a group of soldiers, which so impresses one that he starts to visit. But the woman’s attempts to come to some sort of mutual understanding with the soldier are misinterpreted by the village as lustful intentions.
The sense I gain of Oyeyemi’s protagonist is of a woman feeling the pressure of expectation from many sides — her daughter, her husband’s mother, Bilal, the villagers — and trying her best to steer a course through it all. I like the complexity of the picture that Oyeyemi paints: the villagers have their flaws; the soldier is neither a stereotype of badness nor a stereotype of badness-suddenly-turned-good; the daughter changes her opinion of the soldiers in the fluid way that young children can. The woman is ultimately forced into a situation she doesn’t really want to be in, try though she may to make light of it. All is delineated well by Oyeyemi
, and it makes me look forward to her story collection next year with anticipation.
EDIT: I’m not sure where I got the impression that Oyeyemi would be releasing a story collection in 2011, but she won’t be doing so after all.
ANOTHER EDIT, JUNE 2011: Perhaps I wasn’t entirely wrong to begin with; see my review of Mr Fox.