The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)
To be honest, I haven’t been sure on what I should write as regards The Icarus Girl. My foremost thoughts are that it’s worth reading—an effective novel operating as both ghost story and bildungsroman. I’m impressed that Helen Oyeyemi wrote it when she was only in her late teens. I have complaints, in particular the lackluster ending and underdeveloped themes, but it was an enjoyable read throughout. Creepy, moving, well-written—aspiring to something beyond the trappings of a horror novel (perhaps because Oyeyemi never consciously constructed it as such in the first place). A creative mixture of Nigerian folklore and Jane Eyre-style Gothic tropes. Certainly a work worth emphasizing its strengths before examining its weaknesses.
I suppose in trying to write a review about this novel, I inadvertently led myself to question what kind of reviews I’m supposed to be writing for this series in the first place. Most have been traditional critical reviews—an analysis of the quality of the narrative, the use of language, the effectiveness of the scares, the creativity of the subject matter, the profundity of the themes, etc. The Icarus Girl is the first novel I’ve read for this series where, frankly, the idea of writing this kind of review bores me.
Skimming some reviews on Goodreads, I’ve found that many other readers have come to similar conclusions as I have. Mainly, as mentioned, the ending and the thematic jumping around. These two complaints are perhaps why I’m having such difficulty writing a review of the book as a traditional critique of a cohesive work. Because it isn’t.
The earlier parts of the novel concern our protagonist, 8-year-old Jessamy, in a relatively straightforward character study. We learn about her relationship with her family, her split cultural identity between Nigeria and England, her status as social outcast due to her active imagination. It reminds me a lot of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, a coming-of-age novel set in colonial Rhodesia in the 1960s. From there the character of TillyTilly is introduced—an enigmatic figure who is either a figment of Jess’s imagination or some kind of paranormal entity—and throws this comparison off somewhat. Essentially the duality themes (rationality/spirituality, English roots/Nigerian roots, extroversion/introversion, etc.) are merely solidified and topped with an exploration of sisterhood. Paranormal events aside, this is much in line with Nervous Conditions. This part of the book is wonderful and where I place my praise. I could point out the flaws (pacing and awkward writing), but it’s all forgivable and ultimately small. At this point I could easily write a straightforward review.
Yet the book doesn’t seem to get it all together, and changes itself into something else entirely. The focus shifts to Jessamy’s psychological health—figuring out whether TillyTilly is real or not, whether the actions TillyTilly performs were actually hers (whatever she is) or just Jessamy pretending. The tone is more like pulp mystery. The legal drama/exploitation novel Stranglehold by Jack Ketchum comes to mind. It isn’t bad, it’s just a different grade of fiction entirely. The themes concerning identity and ethnicity and spirituality are reduced to the question of Jessamy’s sanity. It’s fun for sure, but feels like we’re reading a different book.
And then we come to the ending. Or rather, slam into it like a car going 70 miles per hour into a ten-foot thick brick wall. Nothing is resolved, and not in a cleverly ambiguous way either. Rather it drops off completely.
As readers we’ve already felt the jolt of the shift in tone—it’s not what we wanted, but we’ll accept it. I wanted a thoughtful bildungsroman told from a minority perspective. I got a portion of that. Then Oyeyemi introduces a ghost story—which is still good, still adds to the coming-of-age elements of the story. (Toni Morrison uses ghosts brilliantly in her literary fiction, after all.) Then it becomes a mystery drama, and we’re thrown off the tracks because it’s so unlike what we began with. But okay, this is still good, just different. Let’s get back on and see this through.
Wait, no. It’s over.
We’re left feeling underwhelmed and a bit confused as to what to feel. We’re impressed for a lot of reasons, but we don’t really know how to process what we’ve just read because it just stops. Almost as if Oyeyemi was tired of the narrative and decided to wrap it up as soon as possible. Leaves everything hanging.
We enjoyed what we read because it was good writing for the most part. Certainly there’s something to be gained from reading a story with such a unique perspective, that intermingles genres so playfully. Only, there’s nothing tying it together by the end. Which makes a lot of dissatisfied readers, and one especially frustrated reviewer.
Previous: Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson