Review: What is Not Yours is Not Yours, by Helen Oyeyemi

9781594634635_custom-2593ed815285acb4dca2b31593cb227d0e62e676-s400-c85>>Published: March 2016

>>Finally got around to it: April 2016

Mum and Dad wouldn’t be thrilled by my new career ambitions. Don’t forget your Uncle Majhi… Majhi the mime… and ask yourself, do we really want more people like that in our family? My parents worked a lot—no need to bother them with something that might not work out. The thing to do was gain admission first and talk them round later. I bought a brown-skinned glove puppet. He came with a little black briefcase and his hair was parted exactly down the middle. The precision of his parting made me uneasy; somehow it was too human at the exact same time as exposing his status as a nonhuman. I got him a top hat so I wouldn’t have to think about the cloth hair falling away from the center of his cloth scalp. You gave me a hand with some basics of ventriloquism, even though you definitely weren’t supposed to help—it was then that I began to hope that you’d stop saying I wasn’t right for you—and I taught my puppet to tell jokes with a pained and forlorn air, fully aware of how bad the jokes were. Sometimes you laughed, and then my glove puppet would weep piteously. When you took the glove puppet he alternated between flirtatious and suicidal, hell-bent on flinging himself from great heights and out of windows. I noticed that you didn’t make a voice or a history for the puppet, but you became its voice and history. I’d have liked to admire that but felt I was watching a distressing form of theft, since the puppet could do nothing but suffer being forced open like an oyster.

***

Her first short fiction collection following five novels and two plays, Helen Oyeyemi’s What is Not Your is Not Yours is a bit difficult to get a feel for—at once quite intelligent and decidedly well written, it’s also detached, its characters and plots for the most part removed from one another, at least on an emotional level.

The nine stories in the collection all revolve around or contain some reference to a key of one sort or another. Characters occasionally exist in multiple stories, and threads of connectivity do exist, but the stories are primarily independent of one another, save this shared conceit.

In “Books and Roses,” a young girl named Montserrat is abandoned with a key around her neck, the purpose of which remains for years a mystery. She comes to befriend another woman with a key of her own, an artist awaiting the return of her possibly murderous lover. “Sorry Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” begins by discussing the narrator’s friendship with a man named Chedorlaomer, and then diverges into its primary tale about a violent, ill-tempered musician named Matyas Füst who abuses a prostitute, and when knowledge of this goes viral, proceeds to fumble his apology—and then continues to fumble the apology to his apology in much the same way, by focusing entirely on himself and not at all on the individual he hurt.

With the DNA of Pinocchio at its core, “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” is a story about puppeteers and students of puppetry, with a shifting narrative voice: the first half belongs to Radha; the second to her living puppet Gepetta. In “Drownings,” a man named Arkady plots to kidnap the daughter of the tyrant who orphaned him, having his parents drowned in the middle of the night when he was just a boy.

“Presence,” one of the collection’s strongest entries, follows a couple as they undergo a psychological experiment charting their presences, and the possibilities inherent to their lives and futures, when not in the same location. In an interesting turn of events, and as one of the more affecting sequences in the entire book, the wife, Jill, goes so far as to hallucinate, in a very believable way, a son that never existed in the first place. The experience is described intriguingly as “an implosion of memory. And as the subjects drift through the subsequent debris, they calmly develop a conviction that they do not do so alone.

“A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society” explores two university societies as they go head-to-head with one another while issues of interpersonal love and lust go unabated. “Dornicka and the St. Martin’s Day Goose” is another entry obviously influenced by fairy tales, imagining if Red Riding Hood were older, wiser, widowed, and had struck a deal with the Big Bad Wolf—to find for him a sacrifice rather than to allow him to feast on just any unfortunate passerby. A charming story about things from youth being locked away, to be sacrificed or bargained for in adulthood. It’s in this and the first story that the use of the key as a narrative device works best.

“Freddy Barrandov Checks . . . In?” introduces us to the titular nursery school teacher, the son of two Hotel Glissando employees who wish their offspring to follow in their footsteps—whether it’s what he wants or not. And lastly, “If a Book is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think” dives deep into office gossip subculture as a new employee—Eva—is at first idolized for her mystery and appearance, and then ostracized for being an adulterer. She carries with her a diary she’d stopped writing in years earlier—the story’s lock in need of a key, of course.

While I loved the mystery of the final story’s ending, and how it felt somehow complete in its ambiguity, that’s more than I can say for many others in this collection. Which, I suppose, is one of my chief complaints: that the majority of the stories don’t feel so much as they end as they limp off into the distance having been shot in the calf.

The second issue I have with this collection is with respect to the key, both as an object and a theme that runs throughout. Frequently the presence of these keys felt unnaturally forced into place in each story. I was made aware of the conceit of the key prior to reading this book, upon reading an interview given by the author. I can’t be sure had I not known about its purpose ahead of time that the sense of discovering a key in each story might have been stronger, but going into the collection with this knowledge in mind, I think, helped to draw additional attention to their existence—an unfortunate thing in this instance, as they routinely stood out as items injected into scenes not always necessary to the whole, as if the author had decided upon the shared imagery after the fact.

Lastly, I have to admit I struggled with the nested aspect of many of these tales. Oyeyemi’s short stories are like Matryoshka dolls that begin with an outer layer not necessarily linked—at least not intrinsically—to what’s inside; often I felt as if I was being taken on tangents too many to count, and as such found myself not necessarily losing focus but certainly losing interest in the “main” narratives of several of the stories. However, this is a personal issue. I am pickier about short fiction than I am any other form, and what I often like most about the works of short fiction that have stuck with me over time is their focus—the promise of a single idea stretched and spiralled to its limit. Oyeyemi’s short stories, on the other hand, meander and take their time finding their way to the end. I can’t really fault this as it is a stylistic decision, and a valid one at that, but in this format it did not work for me, and I was left at the end of each story feeling more frustrated than not.

On a purely technical level, Oyeyemi’s craft is second to none. Her use of language is skilful as always, and her abilities only seem to increase with each book. Narratively, though, I flip-flop on her work, and often come down on the side of wanting to love it so much more than I actually do. To date, I’ve read four of her novels, and her first, The Icarus Girl, is still my favourite, with the wickedly constructed White is for Witching a close second; Mr. Fox failed to connect with me, and though I found the writing in Boy, Snow, Bird to be exceptional, its narrative fell apart for me in its final section.

Given my issues with the narrative structure of many of the stories in this collection, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, though I would likely still place it in the middle of the pack—it doesn’t reach the heights of Icarus and Witching, but it’s an interesting work all the same. I only wish I could say I enjoyed it more than I did, but the best I can offer is a tepid shrug and a recommendation for maybe three or four of the nine stories: “Presence,” “Dornicka and the St. Martin’s Day Goose,” “Drownings,” and “If a Book is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think.” And of these, “Presence” and “Drownings” were the only two I felt successfully established any sort of emotional connection. Which means either I’m dead inside, or perhaps this collection just wasn’t right for me.

Crossing my fingers for the latter.

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