I would call this book a narrative with a splash of magical realism. It's not so much a fairy-tale retelling as it is simply inspired by the tale. It is a tale that doesn't have expectations. No clear plot, with the focus on family and what you make of it. The majority of the book is the main character Harriet sharing her life story with her daughter Perdita.
Harriet comes from the magical country of Druhástrana, which actual means "the other side" in Czech. The four main landmarks are a giant-sized shoe, a broken loom, a jack-in-the-box, and a well.
A girl grew up in a field. Well, in a house, with her family, but the house was surrounded by stalks of wheat as tall as saplings. The girl's earliest memories are framed in breeze-blown green and gold. Ice and moonlight, sunshine and monsoon, the wheat was there, tickling her, tipping ladybirds and other pets into her lap.
It is in that well that Harriet first meets Gretel. Gretel is a big influence throughout most of the story, but mostly from off-screen. The owner of the farmland that Harriet lives at is actually Gretel's mother, Clio. Harriet's family makes gingerbread, which is almost magical in its addictive properties.
A gingerbread addict once told Harriet that eating her gingerbread is like eating revenge. "It's like noshing on the actual and anatomical heart of somebody who scarred your beloved and thought they'd got away with it," the gingerbread addict said. "That heart, ground to ash and shot through with darts of heat, salt, spice, and sulfurous syrup, as if honey was measured out, set ablaze, and trickled through the dough along with the liquefied spoon. You are phenomenal. You've ruined my life forever. Thank you."
Clio recognizes the value in this gingerbread and wants to make a business. She takes impoverished girls from the country and takes them out into the real world, setting them up in a "Gingerbread House" and calling them her Gingerbread Girls, having them make and sell this gingerbread to the populace. This is the section that takes the most reference from Hansel and Gretel, with the sugar-dusted look to the house, the allure of the gingerbread, and fattening the girls up (though for PR rather than to get eaten).
But we don't dwell long with the Gingerbread Girls, and Harriet and her mother move to live with a sponsor, Aristide Kerchival, in London. It is here we get an in-depth analysis, what feels more like a character study, as Harriet rates each member of this Kercheval family in order of readability. This was my least favorite part of the tale, where I would read entire pages and just kind of gloss over. We do eventually move on to learning of Perdita's conception (Harriet's drunken messages and the courtship thereafter being one of my favorite parts of the book).
I have a hard time recommending this book, because I had such a hard time reading it. It wasn't poorly written, or confusing. There were parts of this book that I absolutely loved, and others that I really struggled to get through. It was unexpected and nonlinear and stands very much on its own. I haven't read any of Oyeyemi's other works, so can't say if this is typical of her style. If you are looking for a fairy-tale retelling, this isn't it. If you are looking for an unexpected tale with more of a literary focus but with fairy-tale like qualities, and you are open to its presentation, then this book may be for you.
If you have read (or are reading) this book, we'd love to have you join in our book club discussion. I'm really curious what everyone else thinks of this book.
Mary W. Jensen. Author, poet, gamer, library shelver.