Telegraph Book Club: Reading Matter
Helen Oyeyemi is one of my favourite living writers. But The Icarus Girl was her first novel, completed in 2004 when she was still at school. So how good can it be, really? Find out with in read of the fortnight. We also catch up with a Sheffield writer whose book takes us from the steel city to Italy, with plenty of violence and thrills along the way. And in Reyt As Rain Reads I prescribe a classic book by the doyenne of puberty to Kate, a mum feeling daunted by her daughters' adolescence. Can you guess what it is?
Read of the fortnight - The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
Oyeyemi penned this book when she was still a schoolgirl.
All the more impressive, then, that it is a work of such sophistication and intelligence. I don’t know whether to in awe, or just massively jealous of her. Probably both. The Icarus Girl is an engaging story rich with myth and legend.
There is something magical about the way Oyeyemi gradually reveals the situation at the centre of the book.
It is uncanny; you almost know before you know you know. The book tells the story of Jessamy Harrison, a troubled eight-year-old whose favourite pastimes are reading, and hiding in cupboards for hours at a time.
Her mum is from Nigeria, and her dad is English.
The action is split across the two countries, but Jessamy doesn’t feel like she belongs in either.
Neither does she want to fit in a lot of the time. There is some lovely writing about retreating into books: the comfort, and the power, in stories. Jessamy doesn’t always respect stories as their authors intended though.
She amends the books she’s reading if they don’t go the way she’d like them to, including her beloved Little Women. I have a lot of sympathy for this.
Wouldn’t we all like to give Jo March everything she ever dreamed of, and Amy the punishment she deserves?
Throughout the story there is a sense of truths hidden; the world not quite marrying up correctly; things slightly off-kilter.
It is unsettling, and makes for fascinating reading.
But despite all the prescience and the measured way the story’s central premise is revealed, the plot is not predictable.
Oyeyemi keeps us guessing all the way through. The Nigerian legends at the heart of the story are gloriously effective; the idea of the ‘wilderness of the mind’ that Jessamy inhabits is irresistible, at once familiar and strange.
Oyeyemi is a writer who treads that line between realism and fantasy with mastery. This is a magical story, told by a magical writer. I would love to know what you make of it. If you would like to see your own review of The Icarus Girl, or any of the books I’ve featured previously, printed in the Sheffield Telegraph, send me 250 words to [email protected] or contact me on twitter @AnnaCaig
Literary City - The Sheffield Connection
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Secrets From Sardinia, a novel by local author AJ Tarn, would be a far cry from life in South Yorkshire. But in fact most of the action takes place around Sheffield and the Peak District.
The book is a suspense thriller based around the coal mining industry, and set in 1943.
Tarn was born Sheffield, and lived in the Aston and Woodhouse area for most of his life.
He is passionate about the role his home city plays in his writing. “Sheffield is the epitome of Yorkshire character - bold, tough and rugged.
Being a Sheffielder bestows pride and confidence. We have drive and determination to succeed and never accept second best. Northern spirit shines through, being confident but never arrogant.”
When he was 16, Tarn’s own life took a tragic turn. “Being a coal miner’s son taught me the value of life and how fragile that can be. My father was a coal miner, and he died a year after my mother, when I was just 16. Some would call that character building, but northern life can sometimes be cruel, certainly hard.”
Tarn has taken his childhood experiences and channelled them into his writing. “We take adversity on the chin, we try to smile and resort to humour as solace. Sheffield spurs my imagination, and is my inspiration to write.”
Secrets From Sardinia is a story of unsolved crimes and mysterious disappearances. Tarn promises a rollercoaster ride of plot twists and mafia-style violence. The book is available on kindle and from Amazon.
Reyt as Rain reads... Books to make it better
Kate says: My two girls will soon be teenagers, and I’d love a book that gives some insight, or will make the whole thing less mysterious.
I would like something for me to read, as a concerned parent, to help me support my girls. I’ll be eternally grateful if you could help.
Anna says: I am probably showing my age here, but the book I don’t think can bettered for real, unadulterated insight into the teenage years, is the 1970 Judy Blume classic Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
On Brownie camp when I was 10, this book was passed around like a mystical baton of knowledge.
Blume is the doyenne of puberty; this is a story that explores the warts and all good, bad, ugly and downright confusing elements of a girl’s journey through this challenging time.
Your girls can read it too; it could be the jumping-off point for some helpful conversations.
My second recommendation is the non-fiction Brainstorm by Daniel J. Siegel.
Siegel is a professor of psychiatry, and he approaches the challenges of adolescence through the lens of changes that happen in the brain during this time.
There is a deeply cheesy tone to a lot of the book and a tendency to switch from evidence-based theses and scientific rigour, to the subjective personal musings of a parent, without being clear where the boundaries lie between these things. But despite this, I loved it.
Siegel’s basic principle is that adolescence is not only a challenge to be overcome, but a unique time in human life with a specific evolutionary purpose, and many positive aspects that we would do well to value and hold on to. Pushing boundaries, taking risks, riding the emotional rollercoaster ride: these are all things that it’s natural and right to do.
Neuroscientifically, Siegel describes the brain during puberty as a construction site. In order for new things to happen, some other things are disconnected. This means the challenging behaviour of a highly-strung pubescent person is not just hostility; some of the time they literally cannot make the connections that we’re asking them to.
Our job as parents is to be the best safe harbour and launch pad we can be for our children. We don’t need to worry too much if they go slightly off the rails while these extraordinary changes are underway.
Their preciousness is immense and terrifying, and they don’t come with manuals – but maybe these books could be the next best thing.
I hope they give you the help and guidance you’re looking for. I wish you and your girls the best of luck.