Thursday, September 15, 2005

Book Review: The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

It is very hard to put "The Icarus Girl" into any one genre. With its otherwordly charaters it could perhaps be a ghost story, a fable or even fall in the horror category, but it so much more than that. It is also the story of an uncommon childhood, of cultural loss, and perhaps mental illness---of being so alone in the world that you invent a friend to help you cope with your confusions. Anyhow, I ramble---The Icarus Girl is the story of 8-year old Jessamy Harrison who, with her penchant for Shakepeare is the mental equivalent of a 12-year old, but emotionally, she is a lot younger than that. Jessamy is very fragile and it doesn't take much to overwhlem her, often resulting in her screaming endlessly for hours which results in her being sent home from school. Needless to say, she doesn't fit in with the kids at school and her parents decide to take her on a holiday to Nigeria to put her in touch with her roots ( I should mention here that Jessamy is bi-racial--- her mother is Nigerian and her dad, British).

While in Nigeria, she makes friends with a girl, about the same age as herself, called Titiola or Tilly-Tilly. Tilly-Tilly is everything Jess ever wanted in a friend, the only problem is, no one other than Jess can actually see Tilly-Tilly. So, who is she? An imaginary friend? An altar-ego? A ghost? Tilly-Tilly tells Jess that she is her twin (Jess supposedly lost her twin at childbirth), but is she really? At this point the author's exploration of Nigerian beliefs and rituals surrounding the death of a twin is captivating.

Tilly-Tilly seems the exact opposite of Jess. Where Jess is fragile, Tilly is strong and powerful. While Jess hates confrontations, Tilly-Tilly seems to thrive on them. With Tilly-Tilly in her life, Jess seems to spin out of control.

While the story itself is fascinating and the author's dive into the mind of an 8-year old, stunning, I am more fascinated with this young author's own story.
Helen Oyeyemi (pictured left), the 20-year old author, was born in Nigeria and emigrated to London when she was 4-years old. She was a lonely child and refused to make friends at school, preferring instead, to read Shakespeare and write Haiku in her bedroom. The only friend she had was Chimmy, a ghostly doppleganger, only she could see.

At the age of 13, Oyeyemi plunged into a vortex of despair and was eventually diagnosed as suffering from clinical depression. At 15, she attempted suicide with a drug overdose. Her psychiatrist thought that a visit to Nigeria might be just what she needed, and it seemed to do the trick. It was the best summer of her life and after that she devoted her time to serious writing and studying for her entrance exams into Cambridge. She completed writing "The Icarus Girl" when she was only 18 years old.

Reading about the author's tender years leads me to believe that this is a masked autobiography and a brilliantly written one at that. Oyeyemi does an absolutely splendid job of showing us the mind of a troubled child. Childhood can certainly be a magical time, but for many children childhood can be a very troubling time as well, a time where there are more questions than answers, more puzzlement than clarity. I'm glad the author doesn't romanticize childhood in this story, but tells it like she sees it.