Book Blog: The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

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This post is written for the blog tour: A More Diverse Universe. Participants in the blog tour were asked to read a book of speculative fiction by a person of color. I read the book The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi.

The story tells about Jess, a young girl with a British father and a mother from Nigeria. Jess is sensitive and of ill-health. She’s overly bright for her age, but what really becomes strange is her mysterious secret friend, TillyTilly. Who is TillyTilly? A ghost? A fairy? An alter-ego? Not knowing leaves me wondering, as I read about the things Tilly does, should I imagine how these secretly could be Jess doing them? Or is Jess really haunted? I won’t ruin the secret for you, only say that it becomes an interesting story, because through much of it I find myself picturing two different possibilities, almost two different perspectives, one in which Tilly really does the things she does, and one where those things somehow don’t really happen.

Jess is a good girl. She tries to do what she thinks her parents will want even when it hurts her to do so. “They were offering her a choice, a chance to say ‘no,’ when if she did, one would be angry and the other disappointed. Was it really, actually, a choice?” I think about what I’ve heard of Alice Miller’s theory of the drama of the gifted child and how very sensitive caring children end up losing themselves in order to try to please their parents.

Jess’ health problems are undefined. She’d been through lots of tests but no one really figured out what was going on. It’s like there’s just something wrong with her. Not just her body, but everything about who she is. She’s lonely, but she doesn’t want to open up either.

When Jess didn’t want to talk about her ideas in class, Colleen thought that Jess was showing off, making sure she would be coaxed and pleaded with, but how could Jess have explained in a coherent way that she was scared? Once you let people know anything about what you think, that’s it, you’re dead. Then they’ll be jumping into your mind, taking things out, holding them up to the light and killing them, yes killing them, because thoughts are supposed to stay and grow in quiet, dark places, like butterflies in cocoons.

 At one point Jess is reading Little Women and somehow the story seemed to have changed for her.

It seemed that Beth, who was far and away her favourite character in the book, was not… kind of mean. She stayed in the house all the time and she didn’t like anybody, and she was always hiding from people and watching them and feeling jealous because they were healthy and she wasn’t. But this was all wrong. Beth was one whose words and character Jess held closest to herself, the one who broke Jess’ heart by dying as bravely as Jo had lived.
Jess has two copies of the book Little Women. Her first copy she annotated scribbling what she felt was corrections to the story, making it less sad and less painful. I wonder if that copy reflects her attempts to edit herself. The second copy, the one she was reading when Beth seemed to switch, was her mother’s old one but given to her by her friend TillyTilly. I don’t believe this was a coincidence, but rather a sign of the skill of the author. I can’t quite say whether TillyTilly comes because Jess is uncomfortable with who she is or whether Jess becomes more uncomfortable with who she is due to her experience with TillyTilly. At times (and just at times) Jess identifies Tilly as the angry part of herself, the part of Jess that will defend herself, the part of her that she doesn’t feel comfortable, yet it is the properties of Jess (the shyness, watching, etc) that suddenly seem to be less virtuous in Beth, not the parts of herself that she sees in TillyTilly.

The story gives an interesting glimpse into the life of a multicultural child. Jess thinks the Nigerians put incredible effort into some of their foods, grinding and drying and frying and drying. Her relatives think her father is unskilled at peeling cassava. Discipline is a bit of an issue. At one point Jess’ father says he’s handling a discipline issue and her mother says, “You weren’t though! If that had been my father ‘handling that,’ she would’ve been flat on the floor with a few teeth missing!” The parents, like most parents I suspect, wonder whether they are spoiling her or being too lenient but with the added complication of different backgrounds. “And now, now you’re implying my father’s some kind of savage! It’s just… it’s just DISCIPLINE! Maybe you just don’t understand that! You’re turning this into some kind of… some kind of European versus African thing that’s all in my mind…”

There isn’t as much fantasy in the book as I had expected and hoped for, though there is the mysterious TillyTilly, who could be seen two ways. Perhaps that is reflective of the two cultures? The name of the story is a reference to Greek mythology, and I wondered a bit, if Jess is Icarus, what is the sun to which she is flying? Is it her precociousness, her sensitivity, that is asking too much of the world? Or is it not the proximity to the sun that ends up mattering but the distance from the Earth and others? Or is TillyTilly Icarus? Is it she who tries to reach the sun of all that Jess can’t do or be?

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  • Aarti

    I have Oyeyemi’s other book, White is for Witching, on my shelf and was debating reading it for this event but ultimately decided against it as I wasn’t sure if it was the style I wanted to read at the time. But I still plan to read her – it’s amazing how well she’s done for someone so young!

  • Buried In Print

    Nicely done. I like the way that you end with questions; my favourite books/authors are often more about asking questions than offering answers, so this gives me a clue that I’ll particularly enjoy this one.

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