I have heard of Helen Oyeyemi through reading reviews on various blogs and she was included on Granta’s 2013 Best of Young British Novelists list, so when I saw this book in the library I was keen to give it a go. I was a little in awe after discovering in the author’s bio that she is a year younger than me and finished writing this book when she was eighteen – information like that always makes me wonder what I have been doing all this time!
The story follows eight year old Jess, a girl who feels torn between her Nigerian heritage and British upbringing. She is a loner who struggles to make friends and cope with the outside world. At the beginning of the novel she is hiding inside a cupboard because “outside the cupboard, Jess felt as if she was in a place where everything moved past too fast, all colours, all people talking and wanting her to say things.” It soon becomes clear that Jess is extremely intelligent (she reads Hamlet), but also quite disturbed – she rewrites books in which anything bad happens and has screaming fits on a regular basis.
On a trip to Nigeria she meets a young girl, whom she names TillyTilly:
“A girl was standing silently above her, looking down at her with narrow, dark eyes, so dark that, to Jess, lying on the ground, they seemed pupil-less.”
They quickly become friends, although Jess soon realises that TillyTilly is not a normal little girl. She seems to have magical powers, and it isn’t long before their friendship takes on a darker character. When Jess returns to England, TillyTilly soon turns up, and from here the novel takes a really sinister turn. Like Jess, TillyTilly has a double identity and isn’t who Jess thought she was at first.
This book draws quite a bit on mythology, as the title suggests, and Oyeyemi really builds up the tension to create some quite frightening moments. Having said this, I felt that (apart from the genuinely scary moments) a lot of the book felt a bit like it had been written for children due to the way it was told and it wasn’t until about a third of the way in that I felt really compelled to keep reading. I’m not sure whether I would recommend this one or not, but I would definitely read more of Oyeyemi’s work after this one which I suppose is recommendation enough! At the risk of sounding condescending, if Oyeyemi wrote this at the age of eighteen then I think she is capable of very great things.
Have you read anything by this author and, if so, what did you think? Could you recommend which of her books I should read next?