Book review: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

IT’S impossible not to fall for Helen Oyeyemi’s new book, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours — the physical object, at least. 

Helen Oyeyemi

Picador, £10.49

The hardback is a thing of beauty, the title in gold, indented letters over a drawing of a thorny rose, the pages flush with the covers, and the spine bound together with green thread. 

It almost feels a shame to open it — but the nine stories here suck you in.

Born in Nigeria in 1984, Oyeyemi was named a Granta best young British novelist in 2013, and already has five books to her name, as well as a couple of plays. 

Her last novel, 2014’s Boy Snow Bird, was a loose reimagining of the story of Snow White, but although interesting, it felt apathetic and cold. 

Here, Oyeyemi, in her first collection of stories, mines folk- and fairytales again, most obviously in ‘dornicka and the st martin’s day goose’, which features the ‘big bad wolf’ and a woman in a red cape.

Oyeyemi’s imagination runs wild across this collection, the form barely able to contain her ideas. 

Characters and tropes cross stories and paths, pondering locked doors and keys, family ties and lineages, and obsessing over books, libraries, and puppets. 

The opening story, at more than 40 pages, features a weaving tale within a tale.

The penultimate includes the plot of a short film that “relates the dual destruction of the mental health of a middle-aged brother and sister… it’s a spectral wisp of a film, film more in the sense of a substance coating your pupils that it is a stream of images that moves before you”.

These stories are dense, seemingly trying to trip the reader up with intricacies. 

The central two-part story has a cast of characters as long as the latest superhero movie. 

There’s Myrna, Arjun, Jyoti, Uncle Mahi the mime, Gustav, Tyche Shaw, and Radha, as well as a host of puppets à la Pinocchio — almost like real boys. 

If you’re not paying attention, you’ll be lost and confused in Oyeyemi’s vast worlds. Along with these magical rides comes the malaise of modern life.

‘‘Sorry’ doesn’t sweeten her tea’ is a cautionary tale of a popstar who gets jealous of another popstar and leaves for two years’ military service, entrusting the narrator with his “Siamese fighting fish” which “have a way of instigating all-out brawls with their tank mates. It’s almost admirable.”

For most writers, that would be plenty fodder for a short story, but not for Oyeyemi, who then takes us into the minds of teenagers’ infatuation with modern day YouTube sensations, pondering how they react — mostly in the comments section — when their hero is accused of beating up a prostitute.

Though the stories can feel bloated, Oyeyemi’s characters are sublimely imagined: “Senora Lucy was a painter with eyes like daybreak”; the story ‘drownings’ stars a tyrant who “only laughed when he was about to give some command that was going to cause widespread panic”.

Relationships are also so intricately detailed as to seem all too real. 

‘Presence’ begins with a thrice-married woman who fears her husband, in his second marriage, is about to break up with her, so she is actively avoiding him. 

Eventually she is ambushed at a tube station: “She could’ve feigned alarm for just a couple more moments and elbowed him in the groin, but instead she turned her head and hissed: ‘Whose idea was it to get married in the first place, eh? Why don’t you ask around and get back to me?’”

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, with its recurring characters and motifs, as magic swirls around grim realism, seems ripe for a book club to pick apart. 

It’s just a shame that, once closed and back taking pride of place on your bookshelf, you won’t be reaching for it any time soon.


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