I have previously received PR products (review copies of books) from Picador.
TW: suicide attempt, murder attempt (neither discussed in this review).
Today, I’m reviewing Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi. I didn’t realise when I bought this book, but in another book of Oyeyemi’s (Boy, Snow, Bird), there is a transphobic subplot so I’m not sure if I will be reading anything else by this author. If anyone has read Boy, Snow, Bird and is willing to let me know a bit more about the transphobia, I would really appreciate that as I’ve not read the book myself. I have not seen anything about Oyeyemi addressing this, though again if anyone knows different, please correct me.
I picked up Gingerbread because I enjoyed What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, a short story collection by Oyeyemi. You can find my review of that collection here. Gingerbread has the trademark ethereal atmosphere to it: the homeland of the characters is a land found on no map, doubted to exist by most of the population; the eponymous gingerbread has mysterious, borderline magical qualities; some of the characters seem somewhat unreal. Of course, this is influenced by the Hansel and Gretel fairytale, though the storyline of the fairytale is basically not present within the narrative. Generally, I’m not one for retellings, but I’m not entirely sure I would call this a retelling. Rather than presenting the same narrative, it borrows elements from the original. The gingerbread, a character named Gretel, a fairytale feeling. There’s no gingerbread house, no evil witch, no children lost in the woods.
After reading Gingerbread, I read a really interesting review by another reader, where the queer representation in Gingerbread and Oyeyemi’s other works was discussed. Its a review by Bee @ Beekian, and the link is here (the review also contains a bit more detail about Boy, Snow, Bird). I agreed with all of Bee’s points about the representation in Gingerbread, particularly the issue of all the focus on heterosexual relationships. Because most of the characters are presented as being in heterosexual relationships, and their sexuality is never explicitly mentioned, the brief mentions of previous same-sex flings seemed out of place. The only homosexual relationship that is portrayed as somewhat substantial is the mention of Remy Kercheval’s boyfriend and again, this is not really expanded on, and the boyfriend doesn’t get any attention. The strangest part for me was something else Bee mentions; the last-minute inclusion of Harriet’s interest in another woman. As one of the protagonists, I thought that maybe Harriet’s relationship would get a bit of attention, but then I realised that it was basically the end of the novel already.
As I found with What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, parts of the novel were quite confusing, and the plot seemed unnecessarily obfuscated which wasn’t the case in the rest of the book, hence being jarring. I have no problems with densely written books, or with obfuscation (in fact, I enjoy it), but it’s something I feel has to be sustained throughout the narrative to actually work. Instead, this seemed like a mixture of the straightforward and the confusing. It took me a while to understand what had actually happened to Perdita, and her recovery with the talking dolls didn’t make very much sense to me. Talking dolls is one thing, but they didn’t really seem to gel with the rest of the story, where the fantasy elements are much more hinted at. I also struggled a bit to follow who was who, and who was related to who and how, which is partly because of the jumps in time mean that different generations are focused on at different points.
Finally, the characters themselves. I found some of them really well-written and fleshed out like Harriet, the mysterious Gretel (though I would’ve liked just a little bit more Gretel) and Perdita. Margot seemed to fade into the background a bit, and some of the Kerchevals did as well, to the point where when they were reintroduced later on, I barely remembered anything of their characters from earlier in the text. I think this was partly a problem of having so many characters in a relatively short novel, and therefore not having the required space to flesh out all of the side characters. It’s also somewhat down to my preference for character-driven novels rather than plot-driven novels. I wouldn’t say Gingerbread is entirely plot-driven — the characters do a lot of the work — but it definitely has a stronger driving force in the plot than I usually find in books I pick up.
Overall, I wasn’t really that impressed by this book. I did consider DNFing it, but because it’s only about 300 pages I decided to keep going through to the end in the hopes that it would pick up (it didn’t: I actually preferred the earlier part of the story). Sorry that this wasn’t a Halloween review, but maybe the spectre of homophobia and transphobia mentioned in parts of this review is enough of a haunting.