Books, Reviews

A Definitive Ranking of Helen Oyeyemi Books

Ever since I first read Icarus Girl last year, Helen Oyeyemi has skyrocketed to the top of my ‘favorite authors’ list, and I’ve spent more than a little bit of time enthusiastically recommending her to every single person I know. Due to this greatness of hers, I’ve spent the past year working my way through her entire bibliography, and as of last week I have now read every single one of her novels (all 5 of them), which is both wonderful because now they are all in my head, but also terrible because there are no more for me to read.

In celebration/lament, and to make it easier for all those people I keep obsessively recommending her to, I’ve decided to dedicate an entire blog post to the wonderful, terrifying worlds of Helen Oyeyemi, ranking each novel in order of enjoyment. Of course, they’re all wonderful, so it’s really less of a ranking and more of a devotional. Helen Oyeyemi is so good, you guys.

5. Boy, Snow, Bird

Oyeyemi’s most recent novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, lands at the end of my list, but don’t take that as an indication of its quality. Boy, Snow, Bird is a wonderfully crafted narrative following the early life and middle age of Boy, a beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl who escapes an abusive father and finds a new life in a small town. But because Oyeyemi is a horror writer and her stories are all horrifying, Boy finds herself followed by her own mirror image, a shadow-self who sabotages her at every turn, obscuring her view of reality and interfering in her relationship with her husband’s first daughter, Snow, and then her own daughter, Bird. Interwoven in this strange re-telling of Snow White are issues of class, race, and the concept of “passing” as white, especially as it relates to self-image.

Boy, Snow, Bird is probably the best-written of Oyeyemi’s novels on a sentence level–the imagery is straight-up gut wrenching at times–but it lands at the end of my list because the plot arc doesn’t deliver on its early promises. First of all, it’s barely a Snow White retelling; what starts out as an interesting inversion of the evil stepmother concept gets quickly muddied, and eventually you have to ignore the Snow White parallels entirely just to see the story that’s actually happening. It would have been better without the attempted parallel. The other issue I have is the ending. All of Oyeyemi’s novels end on what you might call “cliffhangers,” which leave the ultimate fate of the characters up to interpretation, and usually this doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers other reviewers of her work who I’ve read. In this one, though, the cliffhanger ending wasn’t so much ambiguous as it was the beginning of a whole different story, which had no thematic connection to the first part of the book. What’s more, the book that begins in that ending sounded like one I would have really liked to read, and so I was annoyed that it didn’t actually exist.

4. White is for Witching

Oyeyemi herself describes White is for Witching as being “…about a racist bed & breakfast,” meaning literally that the house itself is racist, which is exactly the sort of play on common horror tropes that I love in her work. It’s essentially a haunted house narrative, in which the Silver family, father Luc and twins Miranda and Eliot, try to grow up and keep the bed & breakfast running even as the house itself and the generations of women trapped within it kill off guests and wreck havoc on their lives. Miranda in particular is heavily influenced by the house, and it drives her into all kinds of crazy behavior, despite her best efforts to understand and fight it. It’s easy to imagine Miranda as the creepy girl in the hallway scaring the shit out of guests, even as you sympathize with her as a protagonist; her weird habits and compulsions even seem to make perfect sense. And while there are no actual ghostly apparitions, they are heavily implied, and the general atmosphere of the novel is creepy as fuck in all the right ways.

That said, it does tend to…meander a bit. There’s a whole section in the middle-end where Miranda goes to college and falls in love, during which the plot is pretty much left behind at the house. I often found myself wondering what the house’s actual goal was, aside from scaring the shit out of people, which I suppose is a goal in and of itself, but still. There was also a slight problem with narrative voice; the novel often shifts between perspectives, including that of the house itself, but there’s no indication of who is talking, and you’re left to figure it out on your own. This is sometimes really effective, especially when Miranda’s identity melts a bit into the house’s, but it’s also kind of irritating. And again, the ending feels more like a beginning, though in this case it’s still clearly related to the previous story and also offers a satisfying end to Miranda’s character arc.

3. the Opposite House

This is the novel I finished reading most recently, and thus it is freshest in my mind. Opposite House is a dual-narrative story following the mythic life of Aya, a goddess who lives in the Opposite House, which has one door opening on Cuba and the other opening on London; and Maja, a black Cuban immigrant to London, whose life is spent trying to be normal despite the constant interference of her “hysteric,” which is what she names the irrational, violent voice inside her who sometimes drives her to do irrational, violent things. Maja is pregnant, and struggling with the idea of her son’s existence (and possible demonic origin) and what he means with her hysteric, even as she tries to keep the peace between her staunch rationalist father and her Santeria-practicing mother. Maja may or may not be literally mentally unstable–it’s never quite clear in Oyeyemi novels how much is really happening and now much is just in the protagonist’s head, and thus the real source of her style of horror.

Opposite House is, I think, the freakiest of Oyeyemi’s novels. While the others all have clearly delineated outside threats, the horror in Opposite House comes from the characters’ inner selves, and any question of violence or harm is only what they will do to themselves. That, to me, is the scariest idea out there. It’s also one of the better in terms of structure, with the two parallel stories echoing each other thematically if not literally, though the connection does get a bit tenuous during the climax. My biggest criticism of this book is that it all but abandons Maja’s story at the end, instead focusing in on Aya, who up until that point was more of a grace note than a harmony. Maja’s story ends up pretty unresolved, but then that’s what I’ve come to expect from Oyeyemi, and the open-ended-ness of it is a kind of catharsis in and of itself; Maja is facing problems that have no real answer, and any attempt to provide one may have been far less satisfying.

2. the Icarus Girl

I’ve written about the Icarus Girl before, but to recap: 8-year-old Jessamy Harrison goes with her parents to visit her mother’s home town in Nigeria, and while she is there she picks up a demon/spirit best friend called TillyTilly, who makes her life a living horror upon her return to London. It’s a carefully plotted horror story that escalates just fast enough to keep you engaged, but slow enough that you never get thrown out of it by any sudden shifts. It’s still one of the only books I’ve ever read that actively scared me, and now that I’ve read Oyeyemi’s whole bibliography, I can confidently say that it is also the best structured. This is a book that doesn’t waste space; even the parts that drag a bit (and there are those) ultimately pay off. Even the ambiguous ending feels perfectly in line with the story, rather than like the beginning of a new one.

Oh, and in case you remember when I reviewed this book the first time, that title thing? Where I didn’t think it made any sense to name a Yoruba myth retelling after a Greek myth? I actually asked Oyeyemi about it when I met her at a book signing, and she basically said, “I was young and it sounded cool. It probably wasn’t the best choice.” We all make mistakes in the name of sounding cool, don’t we? XD

1. Mr. Fox

Finally, we come to the end of the list and my personal favorite of Oyeyemi’s books, Mr. Fox. While not the best constructed and certainly nowhere near the scariest, Mr. Fox makes the top of my list because it is the most ambitious, and because of its thorough and unflinching discussion of an issue that is close to my heart: the treatment of women in fiction. Mr. Fox follows an author, St. John Fox, as he matches wits against his personal muse, Mary Foxe, an imaginary woman who he is having a love affair with, and who is tired of being killed off in all of his stories. The novel follows the pair through a number of different short stories, in which they each construct mini plot-diatribes against one another to try to illustrate their ideas about fictional women and how they should or shouldn’t be portrayed. As this is going on, Mary Foxe is finding herself and her own identity separate from Fox, and essentially becoming a real woman rather than a figment of his imagination.

There are some moments in this novel that don’t quite ring true for me, as well as some mini-stories that don’t fully carry their weight, but on the whole Mr. Fox is a compelling read built around a fascinating discussion. It’s the kind of book that grows with you as your personal ideas and beliefs change, and every re-reading reveals some new element. That’s why this book has place of pride on my bookshelf, and I suspect it’s going to stay there for a long time.

If you’re looking to read some Oyeyemi, which you should absolutely do, I hope I’ve given you a good sense of what to expect from each of these fantastic novels. And they are fantastic, across the boards; it’s just that ‘fantastic’ is relative and even great things can be ranked against one another. Happy reading!

Fangirlishly yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“It was because she kept the chain on the door; it was because he needed to let off steam after a hard day’s scraping and bowing at work; it was because she was irritating and stupid; it was because she lied to him, made a fool of him; it was because she had to die, she just had to, it makes dramatic sense; it was because ‘nothing is more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman’; it was because of this, it was because of that. It’s obscene to make such things reasonable.” –Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi

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