With Gingerbread, Helen Oyeyemi sets the bar incredibly high in a deceptively crowded genre.
It could be argued that fairy tales form the backbone—or at least some vertebrae–of today’s pop culture. Adapting old legends into new films and into experiences is essentially what Walt Disney based his empire on, and we’re currently living in the world he built. Even if you prefer to stick with literature, the remixed fairy tale has been used in literary fiction since Donald Barthelme’s 1967 take on Snow White and seemed to officially become its own genre with the success of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked in 1995. So no matter what the book jacket or press notes say, such adaptions are neither new nor bold. Except when Helen Oyeyemi does it.
Oyeyemi’s new novel Gingerbread is, in very loose and not entirely accurate terms, the British author’s remix of the Brothers Grimm cannibal story. Just as she did with her previous novel Boy, Snow, Bird (a loose retelling of “Snow White”), Oyeyemi offers an impressionistic take on her source material. Rather than emulate the original’s plot, Oyeyemi digs into the key feelings the tale conjured in childhood. For “Hansel and Gretel,” these involve mothers, nostalgia, deception, places that may or may not exist and – of course – gingerbread.
By assembling her own dreamy but deceptively intricate plot, Oyeyemi takes ownership of the tale. Gingerbread tells the story of three generations of women: British schoolgirl Perdita, her mother Harriet and Harriet’s mother, Margot. Harriet grew up in the far-off Germanic nation of Druhástrana, which may or may not exist. While there, Harriet had a friend name Gretel. When Perdita nearly dies trying to transport herself to Druhástrana using (what else?) gingerbread, the past returns to haunt Harriet and her family.
The plot is compelling, but it occasionally feels secondary. Oyeyemi’s specialties are language and imagery. The novel overflows with creepy and wonder-hued images. Four-pupiled talking dolls make an impression, as do even more fantastical creations, but as with all of Oyeyemi’s work the real world is consistently considered. Wealth, race, immigration and relationships all appear in ways that maintain the other-ness of the novel while also keeping it timely and relevant. While re-writing a fairy tale would appear to be an attempt to bottle up nostalgia for childhood, Oyeyemi instead uses it to show the drawbacks of nostalgia. The gingerbread in this story, like in “Hansel and Gretel,” is laced with danger.
If this sounds overly heavy or dreary, it is not. Oyeyemi’s writing is consistently buoyant, and the language zips along despite its stylistic beauty. The novel feels shorter than its 258 pages, but it is certainly not abrupt. While it never seems like we are granted passage into Perdita or Harriet’s innermost selves, their mystery provokes curiosity and invites readers along instead of shutting us out. The characters, the story and even the settings are, through Oyeyemi’s prose, charming. Her writing is so vivid that it induces actual bodily reactions – to watch someone reading Gingerbread is to see them smile often, grimace occasionally, raise eyebrows and even laugh out loud.
Though there are twists and turns, is a book to sink into and enjoy. It’s elegant yet playful, and intellectually stimulating without being condescending. It’s coyly nostalgic yet almost disarmingly current. With Gingerbread, Helen Oyeyemi sets the bar incredibly high in a deceptively crowded genre. She’s offered a work that is both satisfying and surprising, which is a particular feat given that her canvas is occupied with a beloved childhood tale. Take a bite.