Review: ‘What Is Not Yours is Not Yours’ by Helen Oyeyemi

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. Helen Oyeyemi. Riverhead. 336 pages. $27.
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. Helen Oyeyemi. Riverhead. 336 pages. $27.

At 18, Britain’s Helen Oyeyemi burst onto the literary scene with her first novel, The Icarus Girl. Ten years and five books later, she’s slipped into the realm of short stories. In What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, she uses keys not merely as tools that grant or deny access to private worlds but also as symbolic tools, clever devices that link characters, plots and themes throughout the book.

Oyeyemi is quick to introduce familiar tropes and hint at classic fairy tales — her last novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, was marketed as a retelling of Snow White. Then she gleefully smashes them to pieces and begins anew.

The opening story, books and roses, is a dark romance that involves a murder, and its first sentence perfectly encapsulates Oyeyemi’s style of mixing the old with the new, reality with fantasy: “Once upon a time in Catalonia a baby was found in a chapel.” The baby has a chain with a key around its neck which opens a door to a walled garden overrun with roses and a library (for Oyeyemi, far superior to any garden, any palace). The key is a gift but also a tool, as it may help decipher the fates of two lovers.

But keys don’t necessarily have to open anything, as in is your blood as red as this? Told in two parts, Oyeyemi explores the unrequited love Radha feels for Myrna, a student at puppet school. Radha enrolls to be closer to Myrna, often relying on her ghost (think slightly creepy but endearing fairy godmother) to help her navigate the murky waters of adolescence. If her ghost is the symbolic key to her becoming an adult, then the physical keys that appear are objects taken for granted and used to cause mischief. “[…] to whom can someone of good conscience give such an object as a key? Always up to something, sticking paths and gateways together even as it sits quite still […]”

In this story more than any other, Oyeyemi weaves a strange sort of magic; we feel as much (or perhaps more) empathy for the delicately carved puppets as we do for the humans. How exactly does she create characters who have no blood pumping through their veins yet somehow possess hearts, somehow feel pain and love?

And while there is a darkness to Oyeyemi’s stories, she is also tongue in cheek and at times delightfully playful. In drownings she begins, “This happened and it didn’t,” toying with our expectations of what a story must and must not do. The protagonist, Arkady, is desperate for money and kidnaps a tyrant’s daughter, a ruthless man who drowns his enemies in the marshlands, a place where “The water took their bones and muscle tissue but bubbles of skin rose from the depths, none of them frail, some ready for flight, brazen leather balloons.”

In moments like these — and there are many throughout this collection — Oyeyemi demonstrates her deftness with description, of finding beauty in bizarre places.

Perhaps the most fun is the joyfully feminist story a brief history of the homely wench society. In it, Dayang is a member of the homely wenches, a women’s society at Cambridge University caught in a battle with the Bettencourt Society, an all-male club. Forbidden love, book swaps and modern-day sit-ins set the scene for a tale that makes an important observation: “With boys there was a fundamental assumption that they had a right to be there — not always, but more often than not. With girls, Why her? came up so quickly.”

Although most of the nine stories are long (a few hover around 50 pages) and jump around in time, Oyeyemi closes with a decidedly brisk and modern-day story that falls just under 20 pages. if a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that don’t you think, is written in the second person and invites us to lean in, close confidants that we are at this point in the book. Eva, a new employee in an office, is initially seen as a cool, mysterious woman whom everyone wants to befriend, until they find out that she allegedly slept with another woman’s husband. To inflict punishment, the office gangs up on her and steals her most prized possession: a leather-bound diary with a brass lock. When the narrator gives it back to Eva and insists that she didn’t read it, Eva responds: “So you still think that’s why I locked it?”

That is the moment at which Oyeyemi excels: pointing out the human flaws of misunderstanding and warped perception. What is it about writing that we hold so dear? If a diary or a book is read, what — if anything — is gained and what is lost?

By the end of What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, we know that Oyeyemi’s allegiance to books and writing is absolute, and her love of words runs deep. For faithful readers, being granted access to these inventive and ambitious stories is a bit like receiving a gift, one full of strange and private wonders.

Dana de Greff is a writer in Miami.