Gingerbread: Magical realism, magical writing but this genre still eludes me

Gingerbread book review

What is this about?: At her mother Harriet’s knee, so to speak, Perdita learns of her mother’s life in a land that no one else seems to know about, and how she came to be in London.

What else is this about?: At one point, I thought this was about a girl’s desire to understand her mother, and at another point I thought this was about a love story of Harriet’s lost to this land that no-one else seems to think exists.

Blurb

The prize-winning, bestselling author of Boy, Snow, Bird and What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours returns with a bewitching and inventive novel.

Influenced by the mysterious place gingerbread holds in classic children’s stories–equal parts wholesome and uncanny, from the tantalizing witch’s house in “Hansel and Gretel” to the man-shaped confection who one day decides to run as fast as he can–beloved novelist Helen Oyeyemi invites readers into a delightful tale of a surprising family legacy, in which the inheritance is a recipe.

Perdita Lee may appear to be your average British schoolgirl; Harriet Lee may seem just a working mother trying to penetrate the school social hierarchy; but there are signs that they might not be as normal as they think they are. For one thing, they share a gold-painted, seventh-floor walk-up apartment with some surprisingly verbal vegetation. And then there’s the gingerbread they make. Londoners may find themselves able to take or leave it, but it’s very popular in Druhástrana, the far-away (and, according to Wikipedia, non-existent) land of Harriet Lee’s early youth. In fact, the world’s truest lover of the Lee family gingerbread is Harriet’s charismatic childhood friend, Gretel Kercheval–a figure who seems to have had a hand in everything (good or bad) that has happened to Harriet since they met.

Decades later, when teenaged Perdita sets out to find her mother’s long-lost friend, it prompts a new telling of Harriet’s story. As the book follows the Lees through encounters with jealousy, ambition, family grudges, work, wealth, and real estate, gingerbread seems to be the one thing that reliably holds a constant value. Endlessly surprising and satisfying, written with Helen Oyeyemi’s inimitable style and imagination, it is a true feast for the reader.

Gingerbread is beautiful.

Objectively, I can say that without hesitation. This story, this writing is the kind that makes me want to read  a sentence again just to make sure I understand the beauty in Helen Oyeyemi’s writing.

But this is also a book in a genre that eludes me.

When I read a book, I look for the plot, the story at the centre of it and the characters that I want to support, and fall in love with and adore beyond all good reason. With magical realism, I find myself getting distracted with trying to make sense of everything else — with the magic of it all, I suppose.

I thought in the beginning it was a story about mothers and daughters trying to understand one another. But I am not sure that’s it entirely either.

In the case of Gingerbread, I found myself trying to make sense of a land that possibly does not exist, and the four talking dolls who are listening to Harriet tell her daughter the story of her life before this one — in Druhástrana. Their life in England is about Harriet trying to be part of the Parent Power Association and Perdita trying to return to Druhástrana to find her mother’s friend.

Druhástrana is a land where one corner has a giant Cinderella shoe, and another has a jack-in-the-box. People there work the land for unrelenting owners — so kind of magical and also one that offers a hard life for anyone not rich.

And gingerbread — gingerbread is magic and it is … perhaps the equivalent of a currency in Druhástrana. In England, there are moments that Harriet can’t quite understand why gingerbread doesn’t have the power she is used to and when the story goes to Druhástrana do readers understand that gingerbread is power, I guess. That Harriet worked in a house with other girls making gingerbread and selling it to customers, and that life in England is an escape, I guess. I kept looking for links to Hansel and Gretel in order to have parts of this book make sense to me, I think.

I still don’t know what to make of Gingerbread or magical realism — or that my brain is wired to understand it. But I do know beautiful writing when I read it.

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