Book | The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

The Icarus Girl is the debut novel the Nigerian-born Helen Oyeyemi who moved to London when she was four. She lived on a council estate in Lewisham and was discouraged by parents to socialise with the local children. Oyeyemi had a difficult childhood: she often felt herself an outsider, was disruptive at school and suffered from bouts of depression that resulted in an overdose on pills at the age of 15. Oyeyemi’s own life is clearly a huge influence on her writing – there’s a great interview with her on The Sunday Times.

Eight-year-old Jessamy Harrison is the protagonist of The Icarus Girl, a “half-and-half girl” with a Nigerian mother and English father. Jess is an extremely sensitive and highly imaginative child who alienates herself from the world around her, locking herself away in cupboards for hours on end, reading and writing. Jess’s fits of screaming terrify not only the children at school but also her mother who struggles to raise her with a balance of British and Nigerian values. When her mother takes Jess to Nigeria to meet her family during the school holidays, Jess befriends TillyTilly, a ragged girl her own age who appears to understand how she feels and seems to know the answers to all the questions Jess has often wondered about. On her return to England, TillyTilly follows her and Jess soon realises that her friend is not quite real. TillyTilly slowly begins to take over Jess’s life, blackmailing her, breaking things around the house and “getting” people who make Jess unhappy.

I loved this book, it was extremely readable. I know I always talk about how readable a book is, but I think it’s readability (if that’s a word) is really important for the success of a book. Reading should NEVER feel like a chore. Oyeyemi writing is clear and extremely haunting. Her portrayal of Jess’s character is honest and very touching. I don’t think it’s a perfectly written book: as the novel develops the storyline becomes quite tangled with the doppelganger theme and Nigerian culture which can become quite confusing for the reader. But I don’t think it undermines the novel too much, and perhaps even accentuates Jess’s own confusion and lack of control.

Oyeyemi is definitely a writer to look out for. I have her second novel, The Opposite House, waiting on my shelf at the moment, and I’ve also put her latest novel White is For Witching onto my (never-ending) reading list. Enjoy.

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