I should begin by stating that I am no connoisseur of magical realism. Throughout my reading life, I have flitted around the genre like a hummingbird near honeysuckle, pausing every now and then for a tiny taste – some Haruki Murakami here, some Toni Morrison there. It always left me feeling lightheaded and a little bewildered, like “What the heck is in that stuff, anyway?”
So I’m not sure what prompted me to pick up Gingerbread, the latest novel by British author Helen Oyeyemi, except that I’d heard raves about her writing and her riffs on classic fairy tales. This one begins simply enough: Harriet Lee lives in a London apartment with her mother, Margot, and her daughter, Perdita. The Lee women are known for their gingerbread, which Harriet describes as “a square meal and a good night’s sleep and a long, blood-spattered howl at the moon rolled into one.” But when teenage Perdita goes looking into the mystery behind her family’s famous recipe, things start to get tricky. And sticky. And weird.
Perdita attempts suicide by feasting on gingerbread despite a deathly gluten allergy. As she recovers, her mother sits at her bedside – along with four talking dolls – and spins a surreal tale that involves rigged lotteries, indentured servitude, family grudges and a childhood friend named Gretel, who leaps into the story from the bottom of a well (of course).
Oyeyemi’s winding narrative makes you feel like you’re traveling through Wonderland without Alice, but with plenty of swigs from the “Drink Me” bottle. The author deftly balances fantasy and reality, with brilliant nods to modern society. One of Harriet’s favorite pastimes, for instance, is writing five-star reviews for her online purchases in an effort to oppose random negativity.
Gingerbread is strange and tangled and oddly satisfying. And that’s how I ended up feeling about this reading journey – not really sure what happened back there, but enjoying it anyway.