I won’t lie to you.
Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi is a weird book. But, I liked it?
I’m not even sure I understood the whole thing, but the words themselves were enough to keep me reading. I collected beautiful sentences and passages from this book like I collect handfuls of beautiful seashells after the tide recedes.
Here are some of my favorite passages:
“Houses are houses and biscuits and people are people, and we all know nothing good comes of relaxing boundaries such as these.”Oyeyemi 10-1
“Opposing random negativity with random positivity — that’s the main thing.”Oyeyemi 13
“At the hospital Margot tells Harriet that, on the whole, it’s probably better to have sons. Daughters are enigmatic minefields of classified information, she says.”Oyeyemi 28
“They turned to their phones for information and are tortured by the search results: kids hounded to death by messages that pop up in every inbox they have passwords for so they know they are hated — by one person who hates them very much or by a multitude who only hates them a little at a time. Yeah, tell your parents all about this. Go crying to Mummy or Daddy. Let’s all sit down and have meetings with our guardians and sign contracts promising to be nice to one another — you’ll have to sign too even though you’re the victim — let’s do all of that and see if anything changes.”Oyeyemi 30
“So much for all the strategies that ought to earn a peaceful existence. So much for the complete surrender to being unexceptional.”Oyeyemi 33
“half of the hatred that springs up between people is rooted in this mistaken belief that there’s any human relationship more sacred than friendship” (Oyeyemi 36).Oyeyemi 36
“. . . we can do unnecessary things.
They are not inferior.”Oyeyemi 41
“Swindlers are the ones who need to be different, not the swindled.”Oyeyemi 117
“Paper cranes and a recipe do not a friendship make.”Oyeyemi 251
I think I read a review or summary of the book that said it is a modern retelling of “Hansel and Gretel.” Still, I certainly would not characterize it as a retelling or a modern fairy tale.
Suppose the story of “Hansel and Gretel” was a brightly colored piece of glass. In that case, Oyeyemi smashes it into shards and makes an entirely different mosaic out of the “Hansel and Gretel” shards and fragments of glass belonging to her own imagination.
“She was happy for Hansel and Gretel to just keep their Gothic drama to themselves.”Oyeyemi 207
Just a quick review: in “Hansel and Gretel,” siblings Hansel and Gretel venture into the woods. They crumble bread as they go so that they may find their way back to their father. They stumble upon a witch’s cabin, a cabin made of gingerbread.
But in this novel, there are no gingerbread houses. There is a house that walks up and runs away every time someone tries to approach it. But instead, gingerbread is in Harriet Lee’s blood.
Harriet, and her daughter Perdita, don’t precisely fit amongst their neighbors, colleagues, and classmates in their London suburb.
“She’s not intimidated either — she doesn’t believe for a second that these people aren’t try hards just like her. They’re try hards who succeed, that’s all. Their striving is never past tense; it’s merely concealed.”Oyeyemi 12
“Seeing Perdita for the first time must have been like seeing Harriet after an interval, after a few details had been forgotten. They grey-haired seventeen-year-old comes in and she’s like a gingerbread ghost, her chronological age bearing very little relation to her exterior. Then Perdita spoke, and Halloween was cancelled.”Oyeyemi 209
Nevertheless, Harriet insists on making her family’s famous gingerbread recipe for people.
“Bambi-eyed Harriet Araminta Lee seems so different from the gingerbread she makes. If she has an aura, it’s pastel-colored.”Oyeyemi 2
Perdita, a young woman, questions her identity. After ingesting some of her mother’s gingerbread in an attempt to return to her mother’s birthplace, the fantastical Druhástrana, Perdita nearly dies.
“Saline, saccharine, piquant, all proportions correct. But then there is an aftertaste that shouldn’t be there. This throb in the tongue, as though the flesh is swelling and shrinking around the site of a sting.”Oyeyemi 27
She insists she did not attempt suicide but tried to travel to Druhástrana instead. This mythical country doesn’t show up on the Internet, so many people doubt Harriet’s origins, including her daughter.
“Wikipedia doesn’t get to decide which places have actual geographic existence and which don’t.”Oyeyemi 42
Growing up in Druhástrana, Harriet falls in with a woman who enslaves her in a gingerbread factory. There she befriends the woman’s daughter, Gretal, a perpetual youth, who Perdita searches for when she travels to Druhástrana through the gingerbread.
“Oh no, said Gretel. All that happens when you grow up is that your ethics get completely compromised and you do extremely dodgy things you never imagined doing, apparently for the sake of others. Plus growing up isn’t in my job description.”Oyeyemi 118
“Gretel was the cause of Harriet’s inability to be a proper friend to anybody else.”Oyeyemi 246
Harriet eventually escapes with her mother, Margot, to England. Her saviors, the Kercheval family, become inextricably entwined.
During her coma, Perdita confesses to having visited Druhástrana to find Gretel. Upon her return, she has more questions than answers. She still wants to find her father’s family and understand her origins.
“Here you are with your daughter, who thinks worlds of you . . . not just a world but all of ‘em, every last one.”Oyeyemi 247
Believe me, the readers will have the same questions as Perdita, and then some. Not only does the novel not adhere to any classic plot structures, but it keeps you guessing as to what is real and what is fantasy.
In many ways, it reminds me a lot of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll in its absurdity and colorfulness. Things are silly but somehow serious at the same time. Whimsical, but also very dark. You never know what will happen next or fully understand how magic operates within the novel’s universe.
“‘Suppose we’re not even character characters but figments of another character’s imagination . . . ?’
‘I’d be humiliated.'”Oyeyemi 48
But, I think that’s part of the appeal.
Not to be cliché, but this read is as delicious as Harriet’s gingerbread is.
It’s a little off-putting, but you’re curious about it nonetheless. It’s exciting and exotic but touches on what is most important to most readers: belonging, family, tradition, and identity.
“Whatever else was fake, the kindness and the wanting us to stay together wasn’t.”Oyeyemi 55
“We’re as indivisible as gingerbread dough. Shhh, don’t ask me what that means!.”Oyeyemi 221
Trigger Warnings: abuse; bullying; depression; hospitalization; manipulation; racism; self-harm; slavery; suicide attempts