Jessamy is eight years old. When readers meet her, she is in a closet.
She doesn’t mind readers knowing, but she is hesitant to admit it to her mother, who has believed her to be outside.
A complicating factor is the Emily Dickinson epigraph: “Alone I cannot be — / For hosts — do visit me — / Recordless company.”
A girl in a closet and companions whose presence is not recorded: this could be a short story indeed.
But Helen Oyeyemi’s debut novel pulls readers into the closet and into the fragmented but expansive world of a visited eight year old.
The Icarus Girl begins with Jessamy’s recollections of a trip to “Nye. Jeer. Reeee. Ah.” That was the turning point.
For a young girl with an English father and a Nigerian mother, who has lived her entire life in England, travelling for the first time to her mother’s would certainly be a significant event.
For Jess, however, the event is compounded by her introduction to a young girl whose presence reveals a vitally important piece of information to her.
Perhaps it was not intended to be a secret, but until Jess was encouraged by TillyTilly to address the subject, Jess had never mentioned knowing that she was a twin, had never mentioned knowing that her sister had died.
The circumstances under which Jess receives that information are difficult to decipher, but whether intuition or witchcraft, whether conversation or eavesdropping, it becomes a central tenet in her identity.
Simultaneously there is a sense of slippage and swelling, an impression of blurring in the presence of pairs.
“On the telephone to Nigeria, Jess was seized by the fear that it wasn’t Aunty Funke she was talking to, but some thing, winding spirit that had intercepted the call, taking on her auty’s accent and tone of voice, turning every sentence into a shrill cleaving of the nerves.”
There are some delightful sentences in this debut, some shining phrases, like this “shrill cleaving of the nerves”, which also draws the reader’s attention to the schismatic reality of Jessamy’s life.
But, then, reality is a tricky word. It, too, is more fluid and unpredictable here than in many other coming-of-age stories.
“‘Wuraola.’ Her grandfather’s voice was serious now.
‘Two hungry people should never make friends. If they do, they eat each other up. It is the same with one person who is hungry and another who is full: they cannot be real, real friends because the hungry one will eat the full one. You understand?’
‘Yes, grandfather.’ She was scared now, because she knew he wasn’t talking about food-hungry. She almost understood what he was saying: she was sure of it.
‘Only two people who are full up can be friends. They don’t want anything from each other except friendship.’”
It could be that Jess is simply an anxious child, uncomfortable with her Nigerian grandfather who speaks of different kinds of hunger.
But there is an overarching sense of something menacing, of a relentless movement towards something unhappy, twinned with the reader’s desire to understand more about Jess’ situation.
Jess herself is a keen proponent of happy endings. Or, at least, happier endings.
“It was darker here, but she could see her own copy of the book, which was hardback and in pristine condition – the way she kept all her books, except for the parts of the text that had been lightly scribbled and replaced with pencilled additions, some one-sentence long, some as long as a paragraph. Jess made a habit of amending books that hurt her in some way – some books had bad things happening to characters in what she felt was a completely unnecessary and extremely painful way, especially considering that the situations weren’t even in real life, so she had taken to scratching some of the printed text out and adding happier things. So far, Little Women and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess were her most heavily annotated books.”
Her bookishness could explain some of the distance the reader feels between her and a more complete understanding. It could also explain a consistent impression that Jess has the vocabulary and patterns of expression more commonly exhibited by a child five to eight years older than she is when the story begins.
The lengthy passage above reveals some peculiar word choices for an eight-year-old girl — pristine, amending, annotated — and yet it is loosely constructed — with some repetition and a couple of extra adjectives. One could argue for either quality if it was consistent, but the reader also receives some strangely knowing and distanced perspectives which seem far beyond Jess’ experience.
“It was too, too miserable being a child and not being able to know these things or believe in a future change. So strange, being powerless to do anything for her own happiness.”
While this observation certainly makes sense, it is difficult to believe that an eight-year-old, particularly one preoccupied with the sense that the ground beneath her feet is shifting, would have the clarity required to describe her situation in this way.
More credible is the type of scenic exchange with her grandfather, and, to some extent, this kind of declaration: “There is no homeland — there is nowhere where they are people who will not get you.”
(I’m not sure whether the word ‘homeland’ suits this young girl’s experience, perhaps it, too, is better suited to an older child’s or adult’s understanding. But being ‘gotten’? Almost all ages can relate to that sensation.)
If The Icarus Girl had been my first of Helen Oyeyemi’s books, I’m not sure whether I would have picked up another, despite the dynamic energy inthe storytelling. However, in a broader context, it is interesting to compare the author’s vision in her debut with the complexity of later works, like Boy, Snow, Bird.
Have you read one of Helen Oyeyemi’s books, or all of them? Has nyone been hiding in a closet in your reading lately?