Then, without opening her eyes, she was caught in the crisp outward shattering of glass as the mirror crack’d from side to side, fying out of its flame. At the centre of it all was TillyTilly, manically screaming : ‘Seven years’ bad luck ! Seven years’ bad luck ! SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK !
“What are you ?” Jess cried out from her safe place.
Tilly’s reply : “I don’t know ! You know ! You know ! “
8 years-old, sensitive, moody, very imaginative, Jessamy Harrison she feels constantly alone and unadapted. Bullied by her schoolmates and sometimes misunderstood by her mother, Jessamy cannot find a place of her own and a person to get along with. But eveything changes when goes to Nigeria to visit her mother’s family. From the extreme heat to the Yoruba language, Jessamy discovers a new, mysterious world which is also hers, paradoxically, and which will show her another perspective on herself and her life.
Jessamy receives a new, Yoruba name, Wuraola, to connect her to the cultural heritage and make her ‘become’ Yoruba. After receiving this name, Jessamy meets Titiola, a Yoruba girl her age with whom she finally seems to resonate. As the story moves on, the reader grows sceptical about Titiola’s intentions (as she is both very kind and very provoking and mean) and starts to question her very existence, until the friendship between the two girls provokes damage and crisis in Jessamy’s family.
Inspired by both English classical gothic stories and Yoruba traditional tales about the double identity of twins, Oyeyemi’s first novel makes the reader question not just “who is who” (Jessamy being also a mixed race), but also why it is so complicated sometimes to understand and accept who we are and why we are this or that way. The cultural difference between the Yoruba town and London, the two languages eventually becomes an extra obstacle to get over for Jessamy, who is already not at ease with her own unsociability.
The ending, however, accounts not only for a major change of perspective on her mother’s family and, therefore, on her own origins, but also on what growing up really means; much more than a modern allegory about cultural tensions, it is accepting some difficult realities about oneself, like fears likely to turn into haunting ghosts, that becomes one of the major lessons of Oyeyemi’s novel.
The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
9780747 578864 | Bloomsbury | 20o6
Review by Ioana Danaila
Ioana Danaila was born in Romania. She graduated from University Lyon 2 Lumière with a Masters in Postcolonial Literature and a First degree in French for Non-Francophone people. She has published short stories and translated books from French to Romanian. She speaks Romanian, French, English, and Spanish and teaches English to high school students in France