"Jessamy Harrison is eight years old. Sensitive, whimsical, possessed of an extraordinary and powerful imagination, she spends hours writing haikus, reading Shakespeare, or simply hiding in the dark warmth of the airing cupboard. As the half-and-half child of an English father and a Nigerian mother, Jess just can't shake the feeling of being alone wherever she goes, and the other kids in her class are wary of her tendency to succumb to terrified fits of screaming. When she is taken to her mother's family compound in Nigeria for the first time, she meets her uncles and aunts and cousins - and her formidable old grandfather. Then one day, in the deserted Boys' Quarters, she encounters Titiola, a ragged little girl her own age. It seems that at last Jess has found another outsider who will understand her. TillyTilly knows secrets both big and small, and some she won't reveal. But as Tilly shows Jess just how easy it is to hurt those around her, Jess begins to realise that she doesn't know who TillyTilly is at all."
Reading a truly excellent novel often causes the reader to draw breath sharply. What causes the breath to be sharper still, however, is when we find that the author is, frankly, insanely young. Martin Amis was only twenty-three or twenty-four when his first novel, The Rachel Papers, won the Somerset Maugham Award. Zadie Smith was twenty-five when White Teeth, partly written while she was still a Cambridge undergraduate, was published. The author of The Icarus Girl, Helen Oyeyemi, is among this list of prodigious young debutants without doubt, for this novel, her first, was written while she was still studying for her A Levels. Two more have been written and published since.
So how does Oyeyemi's debut stack up? It is difficult to know how to categorise it: is it a ghost story? Is it surrealist? Is it horror? Is it something else? Or is it all of these things? From this alone it is evident that it is an ambitious project, culminating in a heady mix of the occult and the more realistic challenges of trying to live harmoniously as a descendant of multiple cultures. We are able to completely believe in the layers of tension that the author builds up, the emotional blackmail and outrageous incidents wrought by TillyTilly, the innocence of Jessamy and the bewilderment of her friends, family, classmates and teachers as the two worlds that Jessamy seems to inhabit collide at various inappropriate moments of her life.
Oyeyemi still has some skills to refine in her writing - as, I suspect, all of us do - but this is particularly obvious in her construction of the precocious Jessamy, whose genius makes it difficult for us to be convinced by the fact that she is only eight years old: constantly writing haikus and reading Shakespeare does not fit in authentically with the portrayal of a child of this age. While I appreciate that the author probably wished to emphasise the girl's naïveté and innocence by reflecting the plot through a child under ten, I suspect that this would have been just as effective if the character had been eleven or twelve years old, while at the same time allowing us to be more greatly persuaded by Jessamy's precocity. This is counterbalanced, however, by how the other children treat Jessamy, which is far more realistic and gives us a window onto how far she must be suffering from the undercurrent of all of the changes in her life.
Many incidents in the story go by unexplained, and this is highly suitable for the nature of the tale at hand; we do not even know at the end of the story if Jessamy is still with us or if she has been taken away by TillyTilly into a whole other realm. The air of mystery and terror built up by the author leaves us spooked, and brings a whole new frisson into the field of British literature. It appears that the literary magazine Granta was right in 2003 to earmark Helen Oyeyemi as one to watch.
Other works by Helen Oyeyemi
Juniper's Whitening/Victimese (2005; drama)
The Opposite House (2007)
White is for Witching (2009)Mr Fox (due out 2011)