The Icarus Girl


Author: Helen Oyeyemi

Finished on: 18 August 2016

Where did I get this book: My first purchase, and read, on the new kindle

When I was at school, I wrote a book called Mandy’s Midnight Mystery about a girl who goes on a narrowboat holiday with her family and is transported to an unspecified but definitely magical parallel universe/ the past. It contains memorable passages such as:

They moored for the night by a line of hawthorn trees all covered in may blossom. Behind the trees there was a field that had very tall grass in. The field had daisies and buttercups and lots of different grasses in. The field had a border of cow parsley that looked really beautiful on the warm early summer afternoon. “You can go and explore if you want to,” said their father.

Pretty impressive stuff, I think we can all agree.

And while she was still at school, Helen Oyeyemi wrote The Icarus Girl.

Oyeyemi’s writing blew me away when I read Boy, Snow, Bird earlier this year, so I immediately thought of her when I was in the unfamiliar situation of having to buy books for the kindle.

And it doesn’t disappoint. Despite being a debut novel written by a schoolgirl, it is spectacularly good. I don’t know whether to be awed, or just massively jealous. I’ll probably go for both.

This is an utterly engaging story rich with myth and legend. It’s told with beautiful language. And it is also very clever. There is something magical about the way Oyeyemi gradually reveals the situation at the centre of the book. She manages to tell you what’s happening in a way that means you know before you know you know.

I am gushing now. But this book deserves it.

The Icarus Girl tells the story of Jessamy Harrison, a troubled eight-year-old whose favourite pastimes are reading, and hiding in cupboards for hours at a time. Her mum is from Nigeria, and her dad is English. The action is split across the two countries, but Jessamy doesn’t feel like she really belongs in either. Neither does she really want to fit in a lot of the time.

They should leave me alone and let me read my books, let me think my thoughts. If they pushed her too far with their requests for her to open up, interact more, make friends, she would scream. They knew it. She’d done it before.

I know that feeling. And there is some lovely writing about the comfort, and the power, in stories.

The woman with the long arms was telling her a story about a boy and a magic bird that spread its wings over the land and made everything green and good… The words were making her feel fresher, coating her in dew.

She doesn’t always respect stories as their author intended though. Jessamy amends the books she’s reading if they don’t go the way she’d like them to, including her beloved Little Women. I have a lot of sympathy for this. Of all the horrible stories about evil I have read in my life, I’m not sure any of them come close to the awfulness of Amy March. I would definitely have added a section where Jo stabs Amy through the heart with that toasting fork after the novel burning incident. And my daughter was reading Little Women, or rather listening to the audiobook, on the same holiday when I was reading this, in one of those lovely twists of literary synchronicity.

All the way through there is a sense of truths hidden; the world not quite marrying up correctly; things slightly off kilter. It is unsettling and absolutely fascinating. But despite all the prescience and the gradual way the story is revealed, the plot is not predictable. Oyeyemi keeps us guessing all the way through about what is actually going on.

The Nigerian legends (or are they?) at the heart of the story work so well; the idea of the ‘wilderness of the mind’ that Jessamy inhabits is irresistible, at once familiar and strange. Oyeyemi treads that line between what is real and what is imagined beautifully.

So, this is my second Oyeyemi and she is fast becoming one of my favourite current writers. When I had my brief, but terrifying, running out of books emergency in Hungary, I download another of hers to my kindle White Is For Witching, which apparently is even more sinister and spooky that this one. I can’t wait!

This is a magical story, told by a magical writer. Highly recommended.

And I’ll see if I can get hold of Oyeyemi to give her a copy of Mandy’s Midnight Mystery. I expect she’ll love it.



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