It is difficult to think how to properly review Gingerbread without spoiling at least some small part of the experience of reading it without any expectations beyond the obviously advertised: that this is a book inspired by the magical gingerbread of the fairy tale "Hansel and Gretel" and the folk story "The Gingerbread Boy." From the length of the book (189 pages), you might conclude that this is a YA fairy tale retelling--a fast, light read which tells a well-known story, potentially with some interesting twists or details. That isn't at all what you are in for with Gingerbread, however; it is anything but a light read and, while suitable for YA readers, does not feel properly categorized as for them.
The opening of Gingerbread reads like literary fiction: the description of Harriet Lee's life in modern London, England only hints at the fantastic in subtle ways that could be taken, among Oyeyemi's descriptive prose, as fanciful artistic license rather than literal magic. For example: Harriet's daughter, Perdita, has talking dolls, but do they really talk? Is it simply the imagination of Perdita, with Harriet playing along? The clearest indication that we, as readers, have stepped beyond the bounds of reality into a space of fantasy is Harriet's fictional home country, Druhastrána. While Oyeyemi's account of the world in the opening of the novel reads as subtle magical realism (reminiscent of Alice Hoffman's style from books such as The Ice Queen), as Harriet begins to recount the tale of her childhood in Druhastrána, Gingerbread's tone shifts to resemble that of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland or L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Druhastrána is very much described as a country in which a certain level of fairy-tale magic and absurdity is commonplace--at least in the countryside, anyway.
I won't go into too much detail here, as I try not to spoil too much in my reviews; I'll save my more comprehensive breakdown of the book for the Enchanted Garden Book Club discussion. What I will say is this: If you go into Gingerbread expecting a relatively straightforward fairy-tale retelling, readily recognizable as a mash-up of "Hansel and Gretel" and "The Gingerbread Boy," you may very well be disappointed. However, if you read this book without any such expectation upon it, it will provide you with a great depth of meaning, beautifully descriptive language, and some very pointed commentary (in some places bordering on the level of Swiftian satire) on class and socio-economic structures, and on women and their place and power within society.
I very much enjoyed, and highly recommend, Gingerbread; however, it was not an easy read for me in many ways. It was not difficult in terms of length (I finished it the first time through within a day), but in terms of content. At times, I felt that I was as thoroughly lost in the woods of Oyeyemi's dense words as the titular Hansel and Gretel were lost in their own fairy tale. The details Oyeyemi led me through her novel with were like crumbs of the gingerbread she describes within the book; the spice and sugar of her descriptive and immersive prose sometimes a joy to consume, and other times sticking in my throat as it covered an idea--a truth about the world--which was particularly difficult to swallow. Although it did not end on a dark note, necessarily--there is a form of a fairy tale happy ending to expect here--I would say that Gingerbread, overall, is a dark book. It is grim not just in the way that the original Grimm fairy tales are (nothing Disney-fied here!), but also in the way of any well-written social commentary which presents unpleasant truths.
Elizabeth Wilcox. Writer, Avid Role-Player, Amateur Mixologist. Survivor.