Siobhan O'Leary

Written when she was 18 years old, Helen Oyeyemi's sophisticated debut novel, The Icarus Girl, tells the story of eight-year-old Jessamy Jess Harrison, a girl caught between many different realms. She is on one hand unnaturally precocious and on the other, childish in her displays of fits and tantrums. She is also trapped between the two cultures exemplified by her Nigerian mother and her British father. Her parents move to Nigeria, hopeful that this will allay the anxieties that are causing Jess' violent outbursts.

While snooping around near her grandfather's home, she sees her name scrawled in the dust on the surface of a table and soon meets her first and only friend, Titiola, whom Jess affectionately calls Tilly. Tilly is eerily fleeting in presence and tight-lipped about her family and home. When Jess' parents decide to move back to England, Tilly gives Jess her word that she will not be far behind. When the two girls are reunited in England, their friendship takes on a more preternatural hue. Jess realizes that she is the only one who can see Tilly, and the creepiness of their connection culminates in a chilling vision of an infant. The meaning of the vision is initially a mystery to Jess, but turns out to hold the key to her troubled state of mind and her relationship to Tilly.

Oyeyemi fluently incorporates Nigerian iconography and mythology into the plot and explains Jess' bizarre behavior (which includes cutting out pictures of twins from schoolbooks) as a meeting of the real and the surreal. While the doppelganger theme runs the risk of being played out given its prevalence in so many timeless works of literature, Oyeyemi adds a new spin by relating this doubling to Nigerian custom and culture. Her imagination is gripping and fearsome and even more estimable given the fact that she is only in her second year of college.

Siobhan O'Leary writes from New York.

 

Written when she was 18 years old, Helen Oyeyemi's sophisticated debut novel, The Icarus Girl, tells the story of eight-year-old Jessamy Jess Harrison, a girl caught between many different realms. She is on one hand unnaturally precocious and on the other, childish in her displays of fits and tantrums. She is also trapped between the […]

It is difficult to imagine how a novel that deals with the sterile formality of relationships in 19th-century China could also bring to light the poignant tale of two young girls from very different backgrounds who build a friendship that exceeds even their love for their own families. In her mesmerizing novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See deftly accomplishes this task.

Madame Wang, matchmaker extraordinaire, arrives one day at the home of young Lily in the village of Puwei. Though Lily comes from a family of poor farmers, Madame Wang senses her potential, which lies primarily in her impeccably formed feet—seven-centimeter-long golden lilies—which are the key to marrying into a wealthy family. Lily is presented the rare opportunity to enter into a relationship with a laotong, or old same, a match with another girl considered as significant as a good marriage. In this case, Lily is paired with Snow Flower, who lives with her upper-class family in Tongkou village. Madame Wang gives Lily a fan which bears a secret language developed by the women of Hunan Province as a means of communicating in spite of their isolation. Lily and Snow Flower use this secret writing to send messages to one another at significant points in their lives.

See explicitly depicts the horrors of foot-binding and the grand ceremony with which relationships are cemented. The journey of the two girls—one married into a wealthy family, one promised to a less than regal butcher—is cinematic in scope and touching in execution as the two old sames seek to weather the many storms that shake their friendship. See offers delicate insight into the private world of women whose lives are in so many ways an object of public display.

Siobhan O'Leary has traveled extensively in China.

 

It is difficult to imagine how a novel that deals with the sterile formality of relationships in 19th-century China could also bring to light the poignant tale of two young girls from very different backgrounds who build a friendship that exceeds even their love for their own families. In her mesmerizing novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See deftly accomplishes this task.

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