Reading Helen Oyeyemi is like working out with a friendly but very aggressive personal trainer. At some point, you’re going to find yourself splayed out on the mat, panting like an animal and protesting that it’s too hard, you can’t do one more set. And then she'll blow her whistle in your face and cheerfully scream at you to get a move on.
In much the same way as a good, hard workout eventually leads to an endorphin-fueled breakthrough, Oyeyemi’s short stories eventually clarified for me, and what began as a veins-bulging effort relaxed into a steady rhythm that I could keep pace with. Oyeyemi will never let you get comfortable, but if you strap on your weight belt and bring the intensity, her brand of magical realism will slowly coalesce into something you can hold, loosely, if not fully grasp.
I’m not a big re-reader, but this collection seems ripe for revisiting. In fact, when I finished the first story, “Books and Roses,” I flipped right back to the beginning and started again, convinced I’d missed something. I still don’t know if I did or not, even after reading it through twice. Oyeyemi is slippery that way. I wish I had encountered books like this in my college English curriculum—I think it would have totally floored me to read about the world as it actually is, as opposed to how it was, for privileged white men, hundreds of years ago. And yes, I realize the strangeness of referring to Oyeyemi as a realist when her work is so clearly fantastical, but her characters—these are people I recognize, that are real, that could exist somewhere and have something important to say, even though history up to this point has told them in no uncertain terms that they are insignificant due to their gender or skin tone or sexuality, and therefore not worthy of a voice.
With regards to Riverhead and Goodreads for the beautiful (deckle-edged! What?!) advance copy, which I was lucky enough to win in a recent giveaway. On sale tomorrow, March 8!