the age of light by whitney scharer

a little bird february 21 2019

Gingerbread.jpg

The gingerbread at the heart of Helen Oyeyemi’s sixth novel has a startling impact on those who eat it, not least the three generations of women from one family who make it. Harriet Lee, whose mother Margot and daughter Perdita also follow the recipe, “ate a piece of gingerbread and tingled all over. It was a square meal and a good night’s sleep and a long, blood-spattered howl at the moon rolled into one.”

Readers of Oyeyemi’s previous novel Boy, Snow, Bird (2014) will remember it was based loosely on Snow White and when a character called Gretel turns up alongside the gingerbread this time round, the stage seems to be set for a warped fairytale. 

Some of the familiar elements are in place: a country that may not exist, changelings and vociferous dolls. Even the concept of adulthood is challenged: instead, at 16, it is suggested, you become an “ex-child”. In spite of this promise of the uncanny, the novel sadly lacks the transformative magic to create a coherent or enchanting whole. The internal logic of this fictional world is frustratingly hard to discern and, therefore, wholly invest in.

Oyeyemi’s prose can also be hard going. Ali Smith has praised her previously as “a writer of sentences so elegant that they gleam” and certainly, as with much of Smith’s work, readers who surrender themselves to Oyeyemi’s surprising turn of phrase will probably gain more from her writing than those who allow themselves to be discombobulated by non-sequiturs. Many readers will nonetheless also end up quite lost and I’m not sure the blame lies with them.

There is a strong undertow of melancholy in this novel. The adolescent Perdita apparently attempts suicide and her mother Harriet and grandmother Margot keep vigil by her bedside. Movingly, we are told, “Perdita has done her best to unmake herself, but they won’t let her.” The sense of maternal protection has been passed down the generations. When Harriet was a girl Margot prevented her spine from hooping due to unrelenting work and malnutrition. 

Harriet, a little like Scheherazade, tells a long tale about her childhood in the mysterious country Druhástrana, revealing how she finally managed to leave and settle in London. She also describes sexual encounters with two men, “a pair of black pre-Raphaelite muses”, either of whom could be Perdita’s father. 

Her stories are not without humour and Oyeyemi’s writing is not without insight — at one point, Margot says, “it’s one of the hardest things in the world to somehow make sure the ones you love receive your care for them as physical information, as definite as — raindrops hitting your palm.”

These moments are not enough, however, to stitch a narrative through the bewildering landscape of parental cliques at a west London school, fireflies that speak Korean, girls in wells, rigged lotteries and pop culture references to Tyra Banks and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Oyeyemi’s inventiveness cannot be discounted but one only wishes it had been channelled to more

This article first appeared in the Evening Standard