A gingerbread addict once told Harriet that eating her gingerbread is like eating revenge. … ‘That heart, ground to ash and shot through with darts of heat, salt, spice, and sulfurous syrup, as if honey was measured out, set ablaze, and trickled through the dough along with the liquefied spoon. You are phenomenal. You’ve ruined my life forever. Thank you’. – Helen Oyeyemi, Gingerbread
Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi hails from the genre of magical realism, one of my favorite genres. If you are unfamiliar, there is just enough real-life mixed with just enough magic or fantasy to make you forget the real world for a bit. And all without being ridiculous.
Alice Hoffman is the author who introduced me to this brand of storytelling and in my opinion, she is the master.
These stories follow a rhythm – introduction of a few quirky or odd characters followed by exploring the world they live in, how they don’t quite belong, and then finally finding a way to live their lives, hopefully better than before.
Harriet is a single mother of a teenaged daughter, Perdita – who is no ordinary teen. She is different in all ways including her living dolls and completely grey hair caused by a severe allergic reaction to her mother’s gingerbread.
The gingerbread that Harriet makes comes from an old family recipe passed down to her by her mother, Margot, and farther back from her own ancestors. The origin of the gingerbread comes from crops of blighted rye grown in the questionably existent land of Druhástrana where Harriet and her best friend, Gretel Kercheval are from.
To waste nothing, the great-great-great-grandmother concocted a recipe using many of the traditional ingredients we know to be in modern day gingerbread. The trick though was to use just enough rye. Too little and you were wasteful; too much and consuming it made you extremely ill.
Perdita has many questions about her family of origin, her mother and especially her mother’s friend Gretel who has been an integral part of Harriet’s life but has never been seen by Perdita.
In typical teenage fashion, Perdita says she’s going on an overnight school trip and sets off to learn of her mother’s past and Druhástrana.
The writing is excellent in the first part of the book. And then there is a dramatic shift as Perdita falls down the rabbit hole of her mother’s past. The change falls somewhere in between a stream of consciousness and a calculated fairy tale.
Let them come, let them come from the farms and try to pinch us again, Rosolio raged as she sewed. … From now on we’re all carrying gingerbread shivs, OK? – Helen Oyeyemi, Gingerbread
Gingerbread shivs was my absolute favorite and one phrase I won’t soon forget.
This change in style may bother some readers but I found the utilitarian writing style fitting for the time and the place. Once Perdita returns to her mother, the writer returns to the style that began the book.
I found this brilliant. But I can see how some readers would find it distracting.
In true magical realism form, the characters find a way to bridge their worlds and the ending was just what I had hoped for.
Oyeyemi is an excellent writer and I know this won’t be the last of her books that I read.
Who would enjoy this book? Anyone who appreciates unique writing styles and dark fairy tales. If you liked The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman, The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, or The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, I think you will also enjoy Gingerbread.