Is it possible to be totally perplexed and completely enchanted by a book at the same time? The fiction in “What is Not Yours is Not Yours” doesn’t follow neat arcs in storytelling. Just when you think you’re in a fantastic medieval land you suddenly find yourself in the realistic present. As soon as you get a grasp of the relationship between certain characters a decade passes within the story and everything has shifted. A story that you thought was about a ferocious female fish turns into a pop star’s fall from grace. It may sound like Oyeyemi is being wilfully opaque or mystifyingly clever, but there is something so engaging about the meaning she conveys through her indirect paths of writing that I found myself mesmerised and frequently moved. There isn’t any other way to say what she’s saying and there is no other writing doing what she accomplishes so admirably in this incredibly creative and striking book.
What makes Oyeyemi’s writing so compulsively readable is how funny and surprising it can be. To offer an opposition to an all men’s university group some women form a social club called The Homely Wenches. They go about mixing the gender segregated libraries between the two groups so Lucia Berlin’s stories are exchanged for John Cheever’s, etc. Another story surrounding a finger puppet school involves rigorous classes, assignments and auditions. This isn’t to say the subject matter handled in this fiction is frivolous. Quite often when I felt myself being lulled into complacency at the bizarre situations, I became suddenly emotionally gripped. For instance, the story 'drownings' which features a tyrant who indiscriminately disposes of people who vex him feels resonant of any number of oppressive political regimes. Or in the story 'presence' a couple uses a special programme to gain perspective on their tumultuous relationship which allows them to see a potential son grow into an old man. It’s not surprising that in his excellent review in the Independent Stuart Evers marks this story as a particular favourite. It has an inventive sci-fi premise which yields meaningful commentary on relationships in a similar way to his story ‘Swarm’ in “Your Father Sends His Love”.
Although there is a striking fluidity of identity in this fiction with free movement between gender, sexuality, race and nationality, Oyeyemi sometimes drops in specific references gently poking fun at our stereotypes and assumptions about people. It’s stated in one story how “His skin tone lent him enough ethnic ambiguity for small children whose parents had a taste for vintage Disney to run up to him and ask: ‘Are you Aladdin?’ He’d flash them a dazzling smile and answer: ‘Nah, I’m Hercules.’” When fixed marks of identity appear within the stories they are humorously brushed aside as if it’s ridiculous to think that these are things which can neatly define us. There is something refreshingly liberating about this allowing readers to feel the sort of utopian freedom from the strictures of being that is only possible in fiction.
It’s impressive how Oyeyemi uses language in a way that stretches meaning to tease out the absurdities in our manner of speech and plays upon hidden dualities of words. Literature is so powerful it takes on a life of its own: “A library at night is full of sounds: the unread books can’t stand it any longer and announce their contents, some boasting, some shy, some devious.” It reminds me of Ali Smith's fiction in the humorously intelligent way she plays with words and gleefully mixes high culture with low culture - references to Gogol are mixed with comments about John Waters and watching Eurovision. Oyeyemi has a perspective that is utterly unique playing with genre and form to say something entirely new. Many of these stories have a fairy tale feel (one shows a woman's encounter with the wolf that the Big Bad Wolf was inspired from) and keys that fit mysterious locks drift through several of the stories. Although this gives the stories a timeless feel what they end up saying about romance and culture feels relevant to our immediate present.
This isn’t the sort of writing that you can read with your mind half on what you should make for dinner. It is intricately detailed and if you aren’t paying attention the ground will completely shift beneath you. The author packs a lot into her stories and they are so compelling that I know rereading them will be richly rewarding. I've never read Helen Oyeyemi before, but now I am a committed fan.