Helen Oyeyemi’s most recent book was a collection of stories, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours: haunting fables with a dark twist of humour, trading in the blend of quotidian and mythic which has been the hallmark of this writer’s work. It earned her comparisons to Angela Carter. Oyeyemi began her first novel The Icarus Girl (2005) while still at school; writing in this paper, Ali Smith called it a “strange, grief-charged narrative”, and Oyeyemi’s voice has been a striking one from the start. She has no doubt had her own influence too; books such as Zoe Gilbert’s Folk and Lucy Wood’s The Sing of the Shore, both published last year, have Oyeyemi’s spirit about them.
Her sixth novel, Gingerbread, continues in her accustomed vein. Perdita Lee lives with her mother Harriet in west London. Perdita – whose name, which means “lost”, recalls the heroine of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale – is a 17-year-old schoolgirl; her mother is exactly twice her age. This is the kind of pleasing symmetry you find in a folktale, or in a novel by Oyeyemi. But it’s a symmetry that also conceals a story: a trail of narrative breadcrumbs leads the reader to suspect that they will learn the story of Perdita’s birth.
Soon enough more fabulous elements twine their tendrils around the tale. It isn’t just the lion-print wallpaper on every floor of the house they share with Harriet’s mother, Margot: Margot “has a soft spot for houses that look sensible until you get inside”. The stairs are nearly too tall to climb; Harriet and Perdita’s flat is a “warped matchstick box of a home, where a velvet forest stands between the rooms and their casement windows”. There are silver satin parasols for chandeliers, and in Perdita’s bedroom there is a strange quartet of dolls – Bonnie, Sago, Lollipop and Prim. Bonnie has elm trees for hands; Sago has palm leaves for hair; Lollipop’s hair is, sure enough, a lollipop plant; and from Prim’s open chest cavity primrose petals pour. No wonder the novel’s epigraph comes from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
This is a gingerbread house in every sense of the word: the sweet treat is the household’s source of income and wonder. “Harriet Lee’s gingerbread is not comfort food,” the novel begins. “A gingerbread addict once told Harriet that eating her gingerbread is like eating revenge.” It is a family recipe, passed down for generations in Harriet and Margot’s homeland: Druhástrana, a country that, despite seeming to nestle in eastern Europe, appears on neither map nor Google Search. So now the reader is curious not only about Perdita’s birth but about her more profound origins, too: her family history, her mother’s story, and her mother’s lost friendship with a woman named – you guessed it – Gretel.
It’s an intriguing premise, stitched together with fine and surprising imagery, and yet the novel as a whole never quite hangs together. Oyeyemi has a singular boldness of style, which means that her mash-up of Shakespeare and fairytale with references to Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Jerry Springer Show is never less than energetic; she brings in Brexit, too, with passing references to Druhástrana’s past glories and present isolationism. But style and story fail to meet. Reworking folktale is hard, in part because these old stories have vast, windy spaces where novels have character and motivation. “Once upon a time there was a great king” – that will do to kick off your folktale. Something more is required in a novel.
Oyeyemi takes us back into Harriet’s past and introduces Gretel’s wealthy family, the Kerchevals. There are many brothers and sisters, all with pleasing names, but they begin to blur together: this is a problem, towards the end of the novel, when dual identities are revealed. We haven’t been able to invest enough in these people, finally, to care. The push of the vivid prose isn’t enough to carry the book.
There is no boundary, in Oyeyemi’s work, between the magical and the real: and no such boundary exists in the human imagination. When blending the two there is always the risk of whimsy, and Gingerbread falls on the whimsical side of the scale. But Oyeyemi is a writer of wit and courage, qualities that ensure she will continue to build her own dreams, unfettered by the constraints of genre, unbounded by the plain old mortal world.
• Gingerbread is published by Picador (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.