Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

Jessamy "Jess" Harrison, age eight, is the child of an English father and a Nigerian mother. Possessed of an extraordinary imagination, she has a hard time fitting in at school. It is only when she visits Nigeria for the first time that she makes a friend who understands her: a ragged little girl named TillyTilly. But soon TillyTilly's visits become more disturbing, until Jess realizes she doesn't actually know who her friend is at all. Drawing on Nigerian mythology, Helen Oyeyemi presents a striking variation on the classic literary theme of doubles -- both real and spiritual -- in this lyrical and bold debut.
Goodreads description

I am not sure what it was about this book that didn't engage me. I have to admire the fact that it was written when the author was in her last year at secondary school.  And there is some very good writing in this novel. But somehow the book just misses the mark.

The premise is interesting, if familiar, and suited to magic realism. A highly sensitive and imaginative child divided between cultures (the Nigerian of her mother and white British of her father)  goes visit her grandfather in Nigeria where she meets TillyTilly who may or may not be a figment of her imagination, who may or may not be a ghost or spirit of her dead twin. But the book's ending comes in a rush and doesn't resolve matters.  It leaves you in mid-air. I have no problem with ambiguity, I wouldn't like magic realism if I had, but this ending did not work. I think that as a white Brit I probably needed more clarity about the Nigerian folk beliefs that lie behind the story.

The book is written very much from the point of view of Jess, although on a few occasions the viewpoint slips, for example becoming that of Jess' friend Shivs, before flicking back to Jess once more. Whilst having a single person point of view can strengthen a book and the reader's empathy with the main character, it can also cause problems. As Jess is alienated from her friends, teachers and parents, so I found my understanding of them tended to be limited and two dimensional. The other problem was that I lost empathy for Jess, who came over as a hysterical and possibly manipulative little girl. 

I realize this review has been pretty negative so far but the book does have a lot going for it, including some lovely writing. The concept is ambitious and the subject matter - sisters, friends (imaginary and otherwise), twins, alienation and dual nationality - is promising (maybe the writer was trying to do too much as is so often the case with a first book) and overall I would give the book three stars, were this a blog that graded books. It's just that I have read some incredible books as part of this challenge and I would recommend you read them first.

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