July 6, 2016

Book Review: "What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours," by Helen Oyeyemi

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What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, by Helen Oyeyemi

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours
By Helen Oyeyemi
Penguin Books
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Like they say on the jacket flap, What Is Yours Is Not Yours is linked by the recurring theme of keys and a handful of characters who crop up in every story. What they don't say on the jacket flap is just how odd this collection is. Now, I mean odd in the best way possible, since What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours presents a few new possibilities for good old innovative fiction. I often speak of the need for authors to have fun with what they do, to not lapse into an overly stony-faced "this is serious business and serious art" mode, and Oyeyemi is clearly having all sorts of fun throughout this collection, setting out on and pulling off all sorts of literary stunt flights. I guess I just use the term "oddity" as a warning more than anything else; if you're not predisposed to experimental fiction, this might not be for you.

So, a list of the stunt flights things Oyeyemi lands? Opener "Books and Roses," about an orphan trying to find her mother, nests two or three sub-narratives within the main thread, delivering the climax in the form of a letter. "'Sorry' Doesn't Sweeten Her Tea," which concerns a young woman's changing opinions on a pop star, ends with a bullet-point breakdown of the denouement. "Is Your Blood as Red as This?" switches narrators midway through; "Presence" has a child out-age his mother (a powerful metaphor, of course, but also a fun device), and "A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society" does indeed begin with a brief history of the homely wench society. What's more, Oyeyemi never quite sticks with her experiments or moods all the way through; instead, she'll often pass through them, as though she liked them as ways to underscore parts of her story, but not the whole thing. As a result, her stories might sometimes feel disjointed as they go forward, but she has a way of tying every thread she establishes together within the last few pages. To me, this reveals not just the sense of joie de vivre that I want more literature to have, but also Oyeyemi's confidence in her own abilities, which are considerable.

I'm also drawn to the folkloric undercurrents that run throughout this collection. That's something else I think the jacket missed, but it's definitely something I picked up on. My favorite story here, "Drownings," especially takes on that feeling, riffing on the "evil king vs. humble peasant" thing we've seen time after time and making it feel fresh and funny, while "Dornicka and the St. Martin's Day Goose" offers us a spoof on Little Red Riding Hood where the Big Bad Wolf has been eaten. "Is Your Blood as Red as This?" could, meanwhile, be read as a take-off on Pinocchio. More broadly, her recurring motif of hidden things calls legends and fairy tales to my mind. All of this combines to make the most fun, unique and involving new collection I've read this year, I'd wager.

Out of 10: 9.0

Read even more about What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, July 6, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |