Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi (Viking), 335 pages, $29 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
In this story of cultural estrangement and loneliness, don’t look for Icarus and his classical melting wings. Though Icarus Girl takes its title from the Greek myth, Oyeyemi’s tale is a measured and poetic exploration of selfhood channelled through a girl’s cultural conflicts as she wends her way through childhood.
There is no fall the pyrotechnics of change are all psychological, but anguished.
Seeing the world through the eyes of whimsical Jessamy Harrison is both a magical and haunting experience. This character is a future novelist, no doubt, but Oyeyemi’s strength is keeping the voice of her child protagonist innocent.
Jessamy’s chronic crisis is her struggle to make sense of her racially mixed parentage (her mother is Nigerian, her father English). A trip back to Nigeria deepens the tensions, as does Oyeyemi’s doubling narrative technique, which duplicates characters in the form of alter egos or ghostly counterparts.
The prose is lyrical, the subtle language skilfully developing Oyeyemi’s theme: the emotional space that her confusion about identity takes up in a young girl’s life. Critics have focused on the fact that Oyeyemi was barely 19 when she penned Icarus Girl. Her strength as a writer, though, is not her precociousness but her ability to capture immaturity.
Conjuring the mercurial mind of a child is Oyeyemi’s crowning achievement and is testament to what young writers do best – writing what they know.
Stylistically bold and complex, Icarus Girl draws a line in the playground of reality and fantasy, then stamps it out, leaving readers to admire and wonder at its evocation of childhood pleasure and pain.
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