Book Club with Anna Caig

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

Monday, 14th January 2019, 2:33 pm
Updated Monday, 14th January 2019, 2:34 pm

Helen Oyeyemi is a writer whose storytelling powers and command over the English language are so great I will follow her anywhere.

She has a unique way of taking stories so primal they feel as familiar as breathing, and making them completely fresh. It's like Hansel and Gretel have been hanging around in that forest for the last hundred years waiting for Oyeyemi to come along and take their hand.

At the centre of Gingerbread are three generations of women. Oyeyemi returns again and again in her writing to the relationships between grandmothers, mothers and daughters. And it is absolutely beautiful: true, honest, unsentimental and unconditional love. It's something very special to capture the sense of comfort, contentment and life-affirming rightness of the world that comes with a mother daughter relationship when it is at its best, and I could read her writing about this all day.

In this book we meet Margot, Harriet and Perdita Lee, characters that move between worlds and realities with relative ease. The Lee family has been entangled with the Kerchevals since their days in the distant land of Druhastrana. The Kerchevals have money and the Lees don't. But the Lees have their gingerbread, their honesty and these gorgeous relationships around which the revolving reality of the rest of the book turns. Oyeyemi does explore the relative power that comes with wealth, but it never feels aspirational. As readers, we have much more admiration for the Lees and their straightforward understanding and acceptance of each other.

There are moments of desperate sadness, as well as plenty of prosaic family conflict and domestic reality, in this book. And they serve to ground a story that might otherwise spin off into opacity. We explore the petty jealousies and bitterness that can eat away at families, and as a web of lies, half-truths and secrets is uncovered, it is unclear for a long time whether the Kerchevals will be destroyed or freed by the revelations. We're always pretty sure the Lees will be okay. In the end, what I found most moving is the exploration of what a home really is. Only a writer this unsentimental can get away what Oyeyemi does. She even goes into what it means to find a soulmate, and manages to be profound and beautiful rather than ever straying towards the saccharine.

Gingerbread is a stunningly original and lusciously weird book, and my love for Helen Oyeyemi remains as strong as ever. Gingerbread is released on 9 March and is available to pre-order now.