In a museful snippet-cum-travelogue published by Lenny Letter earlier this month, Helen Oyeyemi detailed the auto-didacticism that characterized her first visit to Prague, where she now lives on a permanent basis. She spent that winter submerged in a cavernous bathtub, checking off her reading agenda (short story collections) with cups of tea always close at hand. She learned to speak Czech, and to waltz.
One wonders whether Oyeyemi sups deeply of some fortifying, moonstruck brew—or perhaps her bubble baths effervesce, while ours merely fizz. What is certain is that the dance lessons paid off. With the precision of someone who has studied the art of the body in motion, Oyeyemi whirls surely from one tale to the next (adding an irreverent hop and a skip) in her latest short story collection, What is Not Yours is Not Yours. After simply drinking in the nine stories, a second reading necessitates, like tiny rubies, individual inspection against a light, between pinched fingers.
On the one hand, Oyeyemi makes it all too easy for us, shifting effortlessly, almost sleepily, between fantastic worlds, fractured fairy tales and the threadlike dramas of flesh-and-blood characters entangled in layered narratives. In ‘’Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea’, the popstar worshipped by sisters Day and Aisha is de-pedestalled when he is accused of brutalizing a sex worker. The girls live with their father and his male partner, the narrator, who interweaves their story with his own concurrent predicaments: housesitting a haunted mansion (in lieu of a gargoyle, an unfriendly Beta fish), and trying to exercise positive parental influence in the lives of these young women, whose trust in the world has been tilted off its axis. ‘A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society’ is a sort of modern picaresque flipped on its head. Day reappears as our undergraduate picaro, championing her women’s society at Cambridge, which was formed to thwart a historically misogynistic, all-male association. It is also an unashamedly happy tale that celebrates the magical banalities of student life. Many of the stories suggest that, for every young person, family identity is in some way a doubtful fabrication, and they put forth alternative varieties as antidotes.
While What is Not Yours is Not Yours often brings its characters’ sexuality to the fore, this sexuality is fluid, almost negligible, there for the reader to project their own assumptions onto. But in the end it is preferable to melt into the sumptuousness of Oyeyemi’s sly surrealism. Here, passion, place, and nationality are constantly in movement. A puppetry school serves as the backdrop for ‘Is Your Blood As Red As This?,’ which begins as a love letter from novice Radha Chaudhry to the school’s prodigy, Myrna Semyonova (the two are later coupled in ‘Presence’). Gepetta, Radha’s puppet, insists on putting in her own two cents, taking over the second half as narrator. The story – which speaks of dependencies and abandonments, of adolescent heat and wonder, where effigies are the watchful arbiters of art and their human caretakers – sparkles intrinsically with life.
A perfunctory investigation of the collection’s material and narrative attributes suggests, perhaps most importantly, that What is Not Yours is Not Yours is an open declaration of the love of books. The exquisite cover of the British edition—a fine-spun illustration of a single rose—is a direct reference to the first story ‘Books and Roses,’ a fable about a Spanish orphan who inherits a clandestine library, as well as Saint Jordi’s Day, when Catalonians offer books and flowers to loved ones in honour of their patron saint. In one of Oyeyemi’s moments of sublime absurdity, the puppeteering prodigy, Myrna, recounts a turbulent flight from Prague that caused its passengers to panic, save for her neighbour:
She was just reading her book – maybe a little bit faster than usual, but otherwise untroubled. I said to her: ‘Have you noticed that we might be about to crash?’ And she said: ‘Yes, I did notice that actually, which makes it even more important for me to know how it ends.’
Like scaffolding that supports its seemingly spontaneously emerging stories, small, urgent parables about the power of books (‘If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think’ is the title of the last story) form the pulsings of the collection’s lifeblood. Roses, books, and lovers: like Barcelona on April 23, this book is full of them.
What is Not Yours is Not Yours is like a charmed set of Russian dolls: spellbound, we are gripped by the seamlessly joined stories unfolding from—and into—one another, as we wait for Oyeyemi to reach for her next bit of magic.
By M. René Bradshaw
What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi, Picador, £14.99