To call a novel childlike isn’t to say it’s simple, especially if we’re talking about Gingerbread, a book that whirs through mythic lands and spikes its many plot twists with the enchanting allure — and nightmarish tinge — of a fairy tale, to be absorbed in a pleasant, sleepy daze before haunting its reader’s dreams.
Helen Oyeyemi — best known for her ingenious Snow White retelling Boy, Snow, Bird (2014), and most recently behind the 2016 collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours — is still up to her old tricks, ruthlessly molding beloved children’s classics into whatever her imagination conjures, like a kid hearing each story for the first time. In Gingerbread, the motif is there in the title: You can bet a girl named Gretel will emerge — out of a well, no less — and that shadowy figures will enter the picture, nefarious from the start. Yet no less reliable is Oyeyemi’s tenderness, finely calibrated through her focus on the bond between mothers and daughters, which carries on through generations.
Margot Lee passes down her famed gingerbread recipe to her daughter, Harriet, who does the same for her daughter, Perdita. (Notably, Perdita is Latin for “lost.”) “Is there any other food that so completely nourishes body and soul, any food more absolute in its embrace of the life-force of its eater?” asks one character. But for the Lee family — alienated, in their gold-painted, five-story-high flat, from the cliquey families swarming Perdita’s school — gingerbread turns cursed. Perdita attempts suicide by feasting on it, despite her deathly allergy. Her mother sits by her bedside as she recovers, telling the bizarre, winding family origin story she’d kept secret for too long.
What a strange, ponderous book this is — without the searing focus of Boy, Snow, Bird or the emotional sweep of Mr. Fox, but still a beautifully, wildly inventive beast. Nobody else writes like this: puncturing the timelessly poetic with harshly contemporary asides, animating plants and dolls with a cool nonchalance. And how is it that this dark, nutty novel exudes cozy warmth above all else? B+
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