Gingerbreadby Published 05 Mar 2019
|Publisher||Random House Large Print Publishing|
The prize-winning, bestselling author of Boy, Snow, Bird and What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours returns with a bewitching and inventive novel.
Influenced by the mysterious place gingerbread holds in classic children's stories--equal parts wholesome and uncanny, from the tantalizing witch's house in "Hansel and Gretel" to the man-shaped confection who one day decides to run as fast as he can--beloved novelist Helen Oyeyemi invites readers into a delightful tale of a surprising family legacy, in which the inheritance is a recipe.
Perdita Lee may appear to be your average British schoolgirl; Harriet Lee may seem just a working mother trying to penetrate the school social hierarchy; but there are signs that they might not be as normal as they think they are. For one thing, they share a gold-painted, seventh-floor walk-up apartment with some surprisingly verbal vegetation. And then there's the gingerbread they make. Londoners may find themselves able to take or leave it, but it's very popular in Druhástrana, the far-away (and, according to Wikipedia, non-existent) land of Harriet Lee's early youth. In fact, the world's truest lover of the Lee family gingerbread is Harriet's charismatic childhood friend, Gretel Kercheval--a figure who seems to have had a hand in everything (good or bad) that has happened to Harriet since they met.
Decades later, when teenaged Perdita sets out to find her mother's long-lost friend, it prompts a new telling of Harriet's story. As the book follows the Lees through encounters with jealousy, ambition, family grudges, work, wealth, and real estate, gingerbread seems to be the one thing that reliably holds a constant value. Endlessly surprising and satisfying, written with Helen Oyeyemi's inimitable style and imagination, it is a true feast for the reader.
Gingerbread is one of the most unique books I have ever read. Helen Oyeyemi's writing is so beautiful and descriptive that she transports you to another world where anything is possible. I did have to read slowly and closely as I found this to be a challenging read but it was incredibly rewarding in the end.
Thank you to Riverhead Books for providing a free review copy via Edelweiss.
Gingerbread was my most anticipated read of 2019, and sadly it was a letdown. Look at that gorgeous cover! (And no, that's not the only reason I was so hyped.) I read Helen Oyeyemi's short story collection What is Not Yours is Not Yours over a year ago and instantly fell in love with her writing. Then this year I read and loved her novels Mr. Fox and White Is for Witching. So I was really amped-up for the release of this one. Gingerbread has everything AND the kitchen sink; it's too much and it's not well managed. If this is your first Oyeyemi and you don't like it, don't let it dissuade you. This is not the place to start with her work and it's not indicative of the wide range of her talent. I think What is Not Yours is Not Yours or White is for Witching would be good starting points.
Harriet Lee and her mother Margot emigrated to England from Druhástrana many years ago. Druhástrana is a possibly mythical country that according to Wikipedia doesn't exist. Harriet's daughter Perdita is sixteen now and starting to ask questions about her mother's homeland. And about Harriet's childhood friend, the strange and mysterious Gretel Kercheval, who had a hand in all the changes in fortune of Harriet's life. When an emergency makes Harriet realize how serious Perdita is about learning the truth, she begins to tell her a long bedtime story about her past. The Lee family has passed down a recipe for gingerbread for generations. Initially a last resort source of nourishment during lean times, the gingerbread becomes a hotly sought after commodity and changes the Lees' lives.
I think the synopsis on the book flap is misleading. Just so you know, the bulk of this novel is the bedtime story Harriet is telling Perdita. It's mostly a long flashback, whereas the book flap gives off the vibe that it's set more heavily in present day London. More on that later. Again, based on the flap I thought it was going to tie in more closely to famous fairy tales that feature gingerbread, the way Mr. Fox recognizably plays with Bluebeard myths. But Gingerbread doesn't, so don't go in expecting a fairy tale retelling.
There's some really great, beautiful writing at the beginning. I loved how weird and unexpected it was right off the bat. Take this excerpt from pages 1-2:
A gingerbread addict once told Harriet that eating her gingerbread is like eating revenge. "It's like noshing on the actual and anatomical heart of somebody who scarred your beloved and thought they'd got away with it," the gingerbread addict said. "That heart, ground to ash and shot through with darts of heat, salt, spice, and sulfurous syrup, as if honey was measured out, set ablaze, and trickled through the dough along with the liquefied spoon. You are phenomenal. You've ruined my life forever. Thank you."There are some very cool, strange things like that throughout. This book is funny, with wittiness and wordplay. Oyeyemi turns well known expressions and concepts inside out in innovative ways. There's a well executed knowing narrative voice, which is a hallmark of her style. Oyeyemi has such a unique and inspiring way of writing about literature; this book has made me want to read Zola and Balzac soon. Her prose is mostly enjoyable, even though I ended up disliking the book.
I liked the real world setting of present-day London, the characters inhabiting it, and that setup more than the Druhástrana story that takes over the book. The rug was pulled out from under me and I was in a different story, time, and place. When reading about the Lees in London, I thought it was so cool Druhástrana was only rumored to exist and most of the world claimed that it didn't. In the beginning of the book, Oyeyemi is great at conveying the intricacies of group dynamics and social intricacies. She captures very specific and universal emotions, often both those things at once. At the novel's start, I really felt the pain of being a perpetual outsider that Harriet and Perdita both experience. This was the most emotionally connected I ever felt to the characters, and as the craziness of the book multiplied, the thread tethering me to them snapped.
This is one of the most bizarre books you will ever read.
One thing's for sure: you'll never be able to tell where Gingerbread is going. Surreal doesn't even begin to cover it. It's like falling into a trippy dream on acid. It's the kind of book where you keep thinking, Did that really just happen? Is that what I think it was? The worlds, both actually on the map (magical realist Britain) and created (Druhástrana) don't feel properly delineated or inhabitable. Too much is unexplained, and it's taken for granted that the reader will just accept it. There's no rhyme or reason to the weird things that keep piling up, one on top of the other.
Gingerbread lacks focus. The story is too meandering, constantly going off on tangents. When I got to these lines towards the end of the book, I was already so over it: "Hmmm . . . Still here? Huh, then it seems you wouldn't mind hearing about the three houses."
I thought at one point maybe the book itself was enchanted, because it's not even that long but it took me forever to finish. It felt like it was dragging on endlessly and I just wanted to be free of this book!
I can see that Druhástrana is a satire of societies, economies, and governments. There are some interesting ideas explored and true statements made concerning these topics. But it can also feel didactic and it's heavy handed with the symbolism. The novel deals with issues of class, including class distinctions and disparity within families. It's about shifting values, homes, and families. It's about immigration and alienation, a feeling of not belonging no matter how hard one strives. But the story that encompasses all these themes just doesn't hold up.
This book literally gave me a headache at one point. It will make your head spin. Take this line: "Just think of all the mayhem a mind-set like this is proving to be the basis of elsewhere, everywhere; there's nothing unique about this . . ."
Reading Gingerbread is a lot of work with no payoff. It's narratively unsatisfying. Gingerbread is trying to do too much and failing, unlike Mr. Fox which juggles a lot and reinvents the wheel. There is some interesting meta commentary on the nature of storytelling and the nature of reality. The characterizations are very technically skilled with myriad details about each person. But I wasn't moved on an emotional level by any of the characters. At one point, I thought maybe I was missing the romantic/sexual elements and more adult feel of Oyeyemi's other books. Perhaps I was annoyed that it was just about family dynamics. But when the romantic plotline came, I wasn't feeling it or the sex scenes. And I usually love those parts of her books! I also like weird fiction! And I usually love Oyeyemi's weird fiction! What can I say: Gingerbread just didn't work for me.
I wanted to like this book. I tried to like this book. Alas, it was just too random for me and it often seemed like so much nonsense. Gingerbread is marred by a frustrating obliqueness. The overabundant elements never come together as a cohesive whole.
Oyeyemi is just supremely skilled at making words the centre-point of her writing. This novel at first glance might have little to no plot, and little to no truly identifiable characters... But what it's got in spades is an authentic sense of the here and now. It mixes fable and folklore with issues of feminism and race in what are snippet-sized allegories that link to create this other worldly novel. It's incredibly surreal and wonderfully subversive in its narrative style. It's the type of book to just read for the simple pleasure of words... But then in these glittering moments it will suddenly delve into your soul and it's just you and the book. Nothing more, nothing less.
This was my first time reading this author and I fear it may be the last if her other books are anything like this one. I knew going in it would be a weird story, and I was okay with that. I was in the mood for something weird or magical, or some sort of modern day fairy tale which would distract me from what’s going on in the real world these days. And for the first part of this book, I got what I had imagined and was satisfied. I was intrigued by the off kilter story, and I felt sympathetic toward the main characters, a mother and daughter, each with secrets that were about to be spilled after a tragedy hit their small family.
I felt drawn to the mother, Harriet, who was raising her teenaged daughter, Perdita, on her own and longed for her daughter’s acceptance and that of the other mothers in town. I also sympathized with Perdita who, unlike her mother, only wanted to escape notice by her fellow students who were only too happy to oblige. And then, there were the quirky elements of Perdita’s unique dolls, and the famous or rather infamous gingerbread that Harriet was always baking in huge batches and forcing on everyone. The recipe was based on one handed down through the generations, the original ingredients questionable, to say the least. So what wasn’t to like about this book besides that recipe? Even the grandmother, Margot, added much fun to the story and had me fascinated and wanting to learn more about these people.
But slowly, as the book progressed, I became less and less invested in the story which meandered from the moment it went back in time, and I became disappointed by these characters who acted in ways no one would act under those circumstances, especially when the story returned to the present. The blend of realism and fantasy at that point did not mix well and only had me feeling disconnected to the characters and their story at large. This had me a little peeved at the author for manipulating her characters to act in ways that were unnatural to them so her story could be as weird as she imagined and play out as it did. At that point, I didn’t feel I could like this book anymore, either as a family drama or as a fairy tale or whatever it was the author was shooting for. I just felt let down that the author had made her characters into paper dolls traipsing through her imaginary storyland rather than have them continue to take on a life of their own and burst off the page, which all the best fantasies achieve. The potential in the beginning went unfulfilled and the ridiculous ending only sealed that for me. It brought this book down from a possible four stars to only two stars by the end.
DNF at 30%
Magical realism is hit or miss with me. Certain books in the genre are charmingly quirky and others go right over my head. Unfortunately, Gingerbread was a miss for me.
Helen Oyeyemi is undoubtedly a talented writer who can expertly command the page so I was excited to read this upcoming release. I appreciate her originality but this novel was underwhelming for me. The quirky lives of Perdita and Harriet Lee are shared in a fairy tale style influenced by the classic children's story Hansel and Gretel.
By the 30% mark I found myself skimming through the quirky descriptions of Druhástrana and Harriet's fateful childhood meeting with Gretel and decided to bail since I couldn't fully appreciate the story.
Readers who truly enjoy magical realism and retellings will likely love Gingerbread.
Thanks to Riverhead Books and Edelweiss for providing me with a DRC for review. Gingerbread is scheduled for release on March 5, 2019.