One of the characters in Helen Oyeyemi’s new short-story collection is asked to reply to an email, making her answer as “full and as bigarrure as it can be”. Not knowing the meaning of the word “bigarrure”, she looks it up and finds it has two definitions: “a medley of sundry colours running together” and “a discourse running oddly and fantastically, from one matter to another”. In both these senses, bigarrure is a word that perfectly describes Oyeyemi’s own writing in these wild, luscious and startling stories.
Any expectations the reader brings to these fictional worlds are continually thwarted as Oyeyemi glides seamlessly across time, space and genre. One moment we’re in a monastery in the south of France, the next we’re in the streets of Prague. One moment we’re in the mundane world of family mealtimes in south London, the next the spirit of the goddess Hecate is performing long-distance vengeance on a pop star for the rape of a prostitute. Another story begins with a man unable to pay the rent, then morphs into a fabulous tale of a tyrant king and his unburnable bride. Myth, fable, realism and surrealism sit defiantly cheek-by-jowl.
The vitality of Oyeyemi’s imagination marked out her much-praised debut novel, The Icarus Girl (2005), written while she was still at school and snapped up by Bloomsbury. Four books later, in 2013, Granta named her a Best Young British novelist. Her unfettered inventiveness and refusal to be constrained by any one cultural frame of reference owes a good deal, one suspects, to her experience as the child of Nigerian parents who was brought up in straitened circumstances on a London council estate.
The fantastical and the ordinary converge in Oyeyemi’s often dreamlike stories without explanation, yet somehow, mostly, make sense. In “Presence”, a couple whose marriage is in trouble embark on a bizarre experiment to evoke their past selves through “an implosion of memory”. Jealousy becomes visceral: “Air seeped out of her and very little came back — she breathed as though subject to strangulation.”
At times the dream turns to nightmare. In “Is your blood as red as this?” a puppet show becomes the scene of a massacre: “Every single one of the puppets’ throats had been slashed wide open so that they erupted strings; they’d been hacked at so savagely that even those internal strings were cut.” In “Books and roses”, a widow is found lifeless in front of an open window clasping an orange rose, the “small precise puncture” in her chest the only sign of her killer.
The supernatural is a recurring element in Oyeyemi’s work. Spirits and ghosts weave their way through these stories too, as tangible as the human characters. “The bedroom ghost and I looked at each other and silently agreed to vacate the room,” one ghost informs us. In another tale, a young man agrees to take care of his absent friend’s house, but regrets the decision when he starts to hear sounds behind closed doors “that convince you you’ve locked someone in”.
Just as the stories seem in danger of spiralling off into the fantastical abyss, Oyeyemi pinions her characters and situations with a deft phrase that renders them entirely credible. Two con artists are “blessed with forgettable faces and the gift of brazen fabrication”. A teenage boy is described as having “a look of rehearsal on his face”.
Oyeyemi’s observations are as sharp as they are humorous. But she is equally at home in a more lyrical mode, her writing warm and sensuous. In “Freddie Barrandov checks . . . in?”, lust is described as “a breathtaking traitor, the warden’s daughter seen in the walled city at all hours of the night singing softly and teasing the air with a starlit swan’s feather . . . a child of our walled cities”.
Keys and locks feature in many of these stories, as both objects and metaphors, serving Oyeyemi’s underlying exploration of the boundaries between people and worlds. A locked book, a locked garden, a man imprisoned in a cell without a key, a baby left on the steps of a chapel with a key and a cryptic message to “wait for me”.
These gorgeously baroque stories are full of humour, tenderness, wisdom and strange delights, and perhaps their overarching message is that words are the universal key to unlock life’s mysteries. But then, as Oyeyemi stoutly reminds us, “woe to those who believe in what is written, and woe to those who don’t”.
Rebecca Abrams is author of ‘Touching Distance’ (Picador)
What is Not Yours is Not Yours, by Helen Oyeyemi, Pan Macmillan, RRP£14.99/$27, 176 pages