No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, August 02, 2010

2010/60: The Icarus Girl -- Helen Oyeyemi

"Two hungry people should never make friends. If they do, they eat each other up. It is the same with one person who is hungry and another who is full: they cannot be real, real friends because the hungry one will eat the full one. You understand?"
"Yes, grandfather." She was scared, now, because she knew he wasn't talking about food-hungry...
"Only two people who are full up can be friends. They don't want anything from each other except friendship." (p. 226)

Jess is eight years old, and lives in Cranbrook: her mother (Sarah) is Nigerian, her father (Daniel) English. She's a little bit strange, given to sitting in the linen cupboard for hours, and crossing out the bits she doesn't like in books.

On a visit to Nigeria, Jess meets her maternal family. She also meets a strange girl named Titiola -- TillyTilly for short. TillyTilly seems to live in the abandoned servants' quarters at Jess's grandfather's compound. She is the first real friend that Jess has made. And, marvellously, she shows up in Bromley not long after Jess and her family return to England.

TillyTilly is the best friend ever: time is elastic when she's around, and she can make the two of them invisible so as to spy on the classroom bully. (Jess doesn't really fit in at school: they say she's 'attention-seeking' but really they think she's weird. And Jess doesn't like to be seen, doesn't like attention at all. She is very firm about this.)

Bad things start to happen: Sarah's computer is smashed, Jess finds herself saying things she doesn't mean, TillyTilly is keen to get people who upset Jess. Jess is sent to a psychologist, and makes friends with his daughter Siobhan, a.k.a. Shivs. TillyTilly doesn't approve. She hints darkly that she and Jess are connected; that Jess, whose twin died when they were born, is more like her than like this cheerful white girl.

And Shivs experiences TillyTilly for herself: This was not another girl. This was not the kind of imaginary friend that you'd mistakenly sit on. She was a cycle of glacial ice. (p. 257)

The Icarus Girl is Helen Oyeyemi's first novel, written when she was still at school. It doesn't work quite as well as White is for Witching but several of the same themes are evident: twins, race, mother/daughter relationships. I was fascinated by the way that Jess's seldom-acknowledged Yoruba heritage was catalysed by her inner rage. I'd have liked more exploration of TillyTilly's true nature (though the rationale for this omission is good). And the novel ends very suddenly, with resolution implicit rather than explicit. That said, I enjoyed The Icarus Girl: it's genuinely chilling in places, and an excellent examination of growing up mixed-race in the suburbs.

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