The Icarus Girl, by Helen Oyeyemi (2006) E

Date Read: 7.9?.09


Book From: Personal collection


Reviewer: Emera

Jessamy Harrison is eight years old, the British-born daughter of a Nigerian mother and a white British father. Extraordinarily precocious and sensitive, she spends hours by herself and often falls into inexplicable screaming fits and fevers. One summer, her mother brings her to visit her grandfather in Nigeria. Even among her cousins there, Jess feels unwanted and out of place, until she meets Titiola – “TillyTilly,” as Jess calls her – an odd, mischievous girl living in an abandoned building on the family compound. TillyTilly is soon Jess’ first and best friend, and delights Jess with her waywardness and strange tricks. However, as their pranks become increasingly vicious, Jess begins to realize that TillyTilly is becoming an uncontrollably destructive force in her life.

Helen Oyeyemi famously wrote The Icarus Girl at the ripe age of 18, while studying for her college entrance exams. (She ended up at Cambridge.) When I tell friends this, they tend  to raise an eyebrow and ask if it reads like it was written by an 18-year-old. Amazingly, it doesn’t. Oyeyemi’s writing is elegant and meticulously stylized, only occasionally venturing into the overwrought. Her portrayal of Jess is astoundingly compelling. The reader immediately and intimately enters her perspective and begins to understand how tormented and frighteningly fragile she is, despite being (or because she is) so young. Much of the impetus to read onwards, in my experience, came from the desire to see Jess safe and healed from her fears. I was increasingly terrified for Jess as the novel went on, and some of the scenes in the book reach truly nightmarish pitches of horror. The half-articulated, hallucinatory style of the darker, mythical elements actually reminded me of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Jess’ perspective so dominates the narrative that the other characters seem sketched by comparison, though still vibrant. The relationship between Jessamy’s parents is one of many interesting tensions underlying the plot, and as the child of one immigrant and one first-generation parent myself, I found that Oyeyemi skillfully captured the tension between traditional and Westernized parents. I also found Jess’ grandfather an interestingly ambiguous character, and would have liked to see more about him, although I understood the constraints that the plot imposed.

Jess suffers from both cultural and personal dislocation, and although the former does become largely subsumed by the more obvious personal drama between her and TillyTilly, it’s a constant subtext, given Jess’ biracial identity and the mythological strains that run throughout the plot. The book constantly raises themes of twinship, sisterhood, duality, and cultural/racial heritage, and leaves all of them hanging in the reader’s mind by virtue of a supremely inconclusive conclusion. None of the tensions raised in the book are resolved. [spoiler]Why is TillyTilly herself split in two, into both “good” and “bad” Tilly? Is she simply an extension of Jess’ rage and confusion? The book seems to solidly land on the side of the supernatural, but that still leaves many unanswered questions. How does TillyTilly know Jess, and why does she insist that Jess knows her? Does she mean that metaphorically, in that they’re both twinless and disconnected? Why does Jess’ twin insist at the end of the book that Jess “did it the wrong way”? Is Jess only perpetuating the problem by violently banishing TillyTilly? I have no idea.[/spoiler] It’s a gutsy way to end a book, and I suspect that many readers will feel unsatisfied by it. Personally, I found that Oyeyemi sustains such a constant level of suspense that the tension, in combination with her mannered style, actually began to wear on my patience towards the end of the book, despite it not being particularly long. Still, I found The Icarus Girl on the whole entertaining, thought-provoking, and highly unsettling; it’s both literary and a page-turner, and an unbelievable accomplishment for such a young author. I came away with a deep love for Oyeyemi’s characters, and a head full of burning questions without answers. Oyeyemi’s next two books have mixed reviews, but I still look forward to reading them.

Go to:

Helen Oyeyemi
White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi (2009) E

4 thoughts on “The Icarus Girl, by Helen Oyeyemi (2006) E”

  1. I finally got around to reading this and actually just finished it and am now creepily writing to you!

    I also wish things got more resolved, but I that’s kind of how I feel about “White is for Witching”. In a way, it’s a bit of a fault, but on the other hand, I am kind of interested in how things aren’t resolved and that there is that lingered tension and what is and the idea that you don’t know what’s going on. In the book, Jessamy wonders why her mother keeps asking her for reasons behind her fears and she thinks about how even if she knew the reasons, it wouldn’t help her feelings. Anyway, I kind of feel that way about this book.

    Hmmmm, not a very interesting comment, haha.


  2. Heya Betty! No, that is a very good point – Jessamy’s thought. I get the feeling that Oyeyemi is always far more interested in the unexplained and unexplainable than in the neatly rational. Works out interestingly in Icarus Girl because Jessamy is so nearly nonverbal/nonrational that she’s uniquely equipped to “understand” these things, but also to be vulnerable to them.

    Did you like either of the two better between this and White is for Witching? or if you liked them equally, what did you like differently about them?

  3. Oops! I wasn’t sure if you’d see my reply so I didn’t see this until now.

    I think I liked White is for Witching slightly better if only it seemed more traditionally Gothic to me (not that I am in any position to say which is more ‘traditionally Gothic’), it just gave me that eerie feeling and has pale girls in distress and a creepy house. I am kind of just seduced by the beauty of the imagery in it. However, I feel like The Icarus Girl was somehow more satisfying to read. There was more of a destination, it seemed.

    With both books though, they start out really strong and then just peter off a bit which is a shame.

  4. No worries, no worries.

    Oh, for sure, White is for Witching (read it a few weeks ago) is totally Oyeyemi running with every Gothic trope she possibly could. :)

    I actually liked the later parts of Witching better than I did the beginning, probably because that was the only point at which I actually started caring about the characters, most of whom I had trouble sympathizing with. (I liked Icarus Girl better in that respect.) I also didn’t find the ending half as frustrating – Icarus Girl left me feeling like I had the emotional equivalent of a sinus infection, but I loved the fragile hopefulness of Witching’s ending. I like thinking that even if Miri wasn’t successful, she exited the world fighting for herself for once (and unlike anyone else in the book).

    By the way, you should totally read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, or pretty much any of her other Gothic fiction – it would be right up your alley.

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