Gingerbread is Helen Oyeyemi’s best book or is it?
March 6, 20190
Harriet’s story involves gingerbread, and also gingerbread houses, fragmented families, a little girl named Gretel, and creepy Hansel dolls. But although Oyeyemi’s last few books have taken the form of elaborate, postmodern, fragmented fairy tale retellings, Gingerbread is not, per Oyeyemi, a retelling of Hansel and Gretel.
“This one’s about gingerbread,” she says and gingerbread in this book is not, the narrator informs us sternly, “comfort food.” It does have nostalgic properties — those who eat it return “to a certain moment in their lives, a time before right and wrong” — but nostalgia here is not inherently wholesome.
Because of her skill at making gingerbread, teenage Harriet is forced to hawk it in an eerie workhouse that seems to be part factory, part child brothel. “Yes, we had fun, we are bona fide children and we think you’re great, please come again,” Harriet and her peers are instructed to say after frolicking around and flashing their underwear at nostalgic, gingerbread-craving grown-ups.
Gingerbread embraces that signature Oyeyemi weirdness and blasé disregard for plot — but it also seems to extend that disregard further than Oyeyemi has before. Her previous books did not particularly care about plot, but they did care about their characters. Reading Boy, Snow, Bird, it was possibly to fall in love with Boy, Oyeyemi’s tragic, striving, wicked stepmother. It is much harder to fall in love with Harriet or Perdita or Margot, who are held at a certain distance from the reader, more like allegorical stock figures than like living, breathing people.