Author: Helen Oyeyemi
Page Count: 304
Publication Date: 2019
Category/Genre: Fiction, Fantasy, Magic Realism
Good Reads Rating: ★★★☆☆ (3.05)
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3.25)
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 Druhstrana, 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.
From the moment this book was published I couldn’t wait to read it. Somehow it always kept getting shuffled down into the middle of my TBR pile for various reasons, so when my 2020 Reading Challenge prompted me to read a book written by a female Person of Color, I jumped at the chance to sink my teeth into Gingerbread.
This novel has all of the elements I love in a book — and let’s not even talk about the gorgeous cover that captivated my heart immediately –magic realism, a twist on a fairy tale, gingerbread, a special and unique mother-daughter relationship, and a family secret.
But if Oyeymi left a trail of breadcrumbs for me to follow, it was scattered in the wind. The only thing that kept me moving forward and turning pages was the allure and the tease of gingerbread, its delicious and intoxicating smell wafting past me every so often.
The storyline felt disjointed and lacked a certain flow. The narrative voice was meandering, prattling along, –like taking a Sunday stroll through the park while chatting away about whatever caught your attention. I found things confusing, especially in the beginning as I kept wondering where we actually going (we WERE going somewhere right?) and why. By chapter 3 it opened up a bit more as the backstory became what was in the forefront and then eventually tied together. Until the end. And then I felt like the entire story shifted into something altogether different, which left me even more confused than when I had started.
Despite trying to feel my way through a complex labyrinth in the dark, Oyeyemi’s writing voice was beautiful, at times even breathtaking, just like a siren leading me along to death. The concept of the story was brilliant and I loved the whole idea of this gingerbread being something that tied an entire family, their legacy and secrets together. Druhastrana as a place that doesn’t even seem to exist to the outside world and the only way in or out is shrouded in mystery and danger added a layer of intrigue. And Gretel Kercheval who always seemed to be at the heart of trouble added a certain spice to the mix. Oyeyemi explored issues with race, class, gender, as well as shifting family values and the isolation and alienation of immigration. This gave me a lot of food for thought but I kept waiting for it — just like the rest of the storyline– to somehow take root and develop into something more concrete and grounded. Instead, it just kept me adrift and then smashed everything to pieces.
I am extremely tempted to take another run-through Gingerbread by the end of the year or early next winter, in hopes that since I now understand the style and basic outline of the plot, I might find things to be more cohesive and delicious.