This collection of short stories by Helen Oyeyemi is a mix of fairy tale and the modern world, of the fanciful and the dark, with a generous portion of sexuality thrown in. In some ways, it reminds me of Angela Carter’s work, but Oyeyemi’s stories, while dealing with heavy themes such as betrayal, abandonment and disappointment, maintain a lightness. Her characters demonstrate a quality that’s not exactly optimism, but a willingness to carry on, a good natured fatalism that tempers the darkness. The nine stories are loosely connected, sometimes by recurring characters, usually by the motifs of keys, locks and home/family. Oyeyemi’s talent for telling a story, and telling stories within stories, is enthralling. While I can’t claim to have completely understood the meaning of each story, I was completely drawn in to them thanks to the vivid environments she imagines and her odd yet fearless characters.
Of the nine stories, three are ambiguous about time period (while apparently modern, they seem timeless) and are reminiscent of traditional fairy tales, and two are modern and supernatural more than magical. Those latter two were perhaps my least favorite. One, called “Presence” is about a middle aged couple, perhaps on the verge of divorce, who spend their vacation participating in the husband’s research project. The Presence project’s object is to allow participants to feel the presence of someone who is absent. While the researchers expect Presence will connect those who mourn to a dead loved one and provide some comfort, the couple find themselves linked to someone else entirely. “If a Book is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think,” besides being a great name for a story, is about a modern business office, the study of productivity, and the bizarre circumstances that follow when a new employee arrives. Eva has a locked diary in her bag, but why is it locked? The three stories that seem the most like traditional fairy tales are “Books and Roses,” “Drownings,” and “Dornicka and the St. Martin’s Day Goose.” The first two feature locked rooms, orphans, and tyrants, while the third is a variation on Little Red Riding Hood. I enjoyed these three for their beauty and oddity. They feature women who take risks and show intelligence rather than fear when doing so. Keys are key to each story. In “Books and Roses,” the main character is an orphan who was dropped off at a monastery wearing a key around her neck. In “Drownings,” an orphan named Arkady lives in an apartment building where one key opens every room; he is later imprisoned in a cell that will kill him if he attempts to leave it without its special key, which is missing. In “Dornicka,” the main character, an older country woman, hides an irresistible tumor (you read that right) in a locked box until it’s time for it to do its magic.
The remaining four stories feature overlapping characters, the modern world, feminists, locks, keys and puppets. The first, “Sorry Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,” introduces characters who seem to possess unusual powers (a shaman, a woman with the power of invocation) and a teenaged girl who takes the criminal behavior of her favorite pop star very personally and won’t be satisfied until vengeance has been taken. My favorite story, “Is Your blood as red as This?”, is a complex story about a girl named Radha who takes up puppetry in order to be with the girl she has fallen in love with. The object of her affections, Myrna, has a complicated past and an even more complicated puppet. Radha, however, is unflappable. She knows a ghost, after all, and the fact that the puppets at school are alive is unremarkable to her and her fellow students. The climax in this story manages to be horrifying and yet tender and sad as well. “A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society” takes a character from “Sorry Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” into college life at Cambridge, with its attendant insecurities about whether or not one belongs and the excitement of bonding with like minded outsiders. What is a homely wench? Anyone who, upon being invited to the party, wishes to invite others along as well. Finally, “Freddie Barandov Checks …In?” gives the reader a view of some recurring characters from a new perspective. Freddie is an aimless young man, generally happy but without ambition. His family pressure him to change his career and join them in their work at an unusual hotel. Freddie, upon meeting his godfather — long thought dead — agrees to take on a job for him, but this job involves breaking up a relationship between people familiar to him and close to his girlfriend. He isn’t sure it’s the right thing to do, but he has made a promise. What to do?
Oyeyemi continues to prove that she is a talented writer with a sly sense of humor and facility for creating familiar yet fanciful worlds. I like that so many of her characters are women who are both powerful and vulnerable, who can make bold choices and not snivel or cry about the fallout, who know that it’s on them to make things happen. Many of them are also the keepers of the keys, which implies authority, power or “agency,” if you will. These stories provide much food for thought and conversation.