Tony's Reviews > The Icarus Girl

The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
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Nov 18, 2009

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bookshelves: read-for-bookclub, novels
Read in January, 2006

While this debut novel is certainly an impressive achievement for an 18-year-old writer, it's hard to escape the conclusion that purely on its own merits as a book, it's rather flat. Apparently partially inspired by the author's own troubles as a child, the story centers on the psychological problems of 8-year-old Jessamy. The lonely only child of a Nigerian woman and English father, she lives in the suburbs of Kent, England, and we meet her for the first time as she hides in a linen closet. The set-up is pure gothic lit, little Jessamy has been experiencing unexplainable fevers and tantrums and is considered "weird" at school. Events are set in motion when her family takes a trip to Nigeria to visit her mother's relatives. There she meets a local girl her own age named Titiola (aka TillyTilly) whom she befriends and who shows up on Jess's doorstep after they return to England. But is TillyTilly real?

Oyeyemi is being deliberately ambiguous with the material, but as TillyTilly becomes more and more a part of Jess's life, and goads her into acting out, the reader is forced to make a decision as to how to read the increasingly sinister events. One option for the reader is to believe that TillyTilly is purely imaginary and a construct of Jess's damaged psyche, and that all that follows is Jess's doing. Alternatively, one can read the story as being more gothicly supernatural -- TillyTilly is real, and can affect the physical world. In my book club, people split down the middle on how they took the story, but for me, the latter interpretation is the only way to get any pleasure from the story. Especially as we learn that Jess had a twin who died at childbirth and that in her mother's native Yoruba culture twins have a very special resonance and power. The reader is given glimpses and impressions of the importance of this cultural element, but it's never really spelled out in enough detail. Oyeyemi attempts to build suspense and tension by slowly raising the stakes, but the increasingly strange events seem to carry less consequence than they merit, and it generally just feels like more and more of the same until an awkward and rushed climax in Nigeria.

There are a number of other problems with the book. Although the author does a very nice job capturing the turbulent emotional world of a powerless 8-year-old girl, Jessamy is also far too insightful and learned at times (she's reading Hamlet, writing haikus, discoursing on Coleridge, etc.). Her parents are very poorly characterized, very flat and insubstantial, disappearing for large swathes of the story and remarkably inept and clueless when they are around. Given the fairly extreme and escalating behavior Jess exhibits, they express neither the concern nor urgency one might expect. Her therapist is equally flat, and it seems somewhat unlikely that his protocol would include letting clients roam around his house with his daughter (who is about the only other character with any life, a kind of bold and fearless type of little girl). Jess's Nigerian relatives are all standard-issue kindly, fun people, except for her grandfather, who has the potential to be interesting, but isn't given enough time to be fully developed. Ultimately, unless one is deeply into the mystical/gothic elements, the book is rather flat. The juxtaposition of Nigerian and English cultures doesn't really amount to very much (certainly not when compared to other "cross-cultural" novels, the most obvious example being Zadie Smith's "White Teeth"). The prose is fine, nothing special (granted, impressive for an 18-year-old), and there's really no reason I would recommend this to anyone. I wouldn't necessarily dissuade anyone from reading it, but there's just nothing particularly compelling about it.
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