The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi has been on the peripherals of my mind since someone mentioned it here – in fact, taking a quick trip down blogmory lane, I find it was Nichola aka Lost In Translation, back when I was talking about The Love Child by Edith Olivier, in my 50 Books… but that was only January, and I’m sure I’d heard of it before that. No matter. When Stephanie at Bloomsbury asked what sort of books I’d like her to send me, The Icarus Girl instantly came to mind.
Jessamy Harrison is an introverted, thoughtful and fanciful child, eight years old, with a fiery Nigerian mother and a softly spoken, slightly anxious, white English father. When she visits her mother’s family in Nigeria (Jessamy et al live in England) she also meets Titiola, or TillyTilly, a ragged girl of her own age who seems to be living secretly in the compound. TillyTilly’s friendship means a lot to Jessamy – but then TillyTilly also appears back in England, and grows more and more possessive in their friendship. What seemed to be an exciting but innocent friendship soon becomes a dangerous and terrifying one – both for Jessamy and for the reader.
I don’t think any review of this book has been written without expressing astonishment that Oyeyemi wrote The Icarus Girl whilst she was studying for her A Levels. It is pretty darn amazing, but this book would be extremely impressive whoever had written it. I love narratives which introduce an element of fantasy into an otherwise domestic setting – it’s what I hope to write a dissertation and possibly doctorate on – but Oyeyemi goes a step further than that, because the reader is constantly left uncertain. How much is real, how much is illness, how much is delusion? Jessamy is seeing a psychiatrist, but her sessions deliberately do not reveal much to the reader.
What starts as a novel about loneliness and isolation becomes infused with issues of obsession, possession, power and, most sophisticatedly, doubleness. I know ‘duplicity’ is probably the correct term, but doubleness is more to the point – even from TillyTilly’s first appearance (and her name!) when she simply repeats everything Jessamy says. It seems a little like those pieces of voice-activated-typing software, where they have to listen to your voice for a while, to register and recognise it, before the programme will work. Doubleness and identity become increasingly important through the novel, very cleverly.
Now, I like novels which don’t tell you everything – ambiguity is fine. My Cousin Rachel is an example from my recent reading. But I finished The Icarus Girl without a clue as to what was real, what the almost hallucinatory final chapter signified – but I also felt that the fault was mine. Someone who’s read it – is it clear? Should I have been able to work things out? It doesn’t alter my opinion of the novel, though – it is exceptional, and I look forward to reading more of Oyeyemi’s work.
In less happy news, for those of you who’ve read this far, the Arts & Humanities Research Council decided not to give me any money for my Masters next year… the next step is college funding, and the step after that is bankruptcy! But I’m determined to do the course, and will keep praying.