Oyeyemi, Helen 1984–
Oyeyemi, Helen 1984–
PERSONAL: Born 1984, in Nigeria; brought to England, c. 1988; father a teacher, mother a worker in the London subways. Education: Attended Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Nan A. Talese, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
The Icarus Girl (fiction), Nan A. Talese (New York, NY), 2005.
Also author of plays Juniper's Whitening and Victimese.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A novel about Cuban mythology; a volume of plays.
SIDELIGHTS: Helen Oyeyemi wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, in seven months, and by the time she was nineteen years old the young author had been signed to a two-book deal by British publisher Bloomsbury. Born in Nigeria but raised mainly in England, Oyeyemi was an introspective child who struggled with severe depression during her teen years. Mental illness also challenges Jessamy Harrison, the eight-year-old protagonist of The Icarus Girl. Like the author, Jessamy has both Nigerian and British roots; her father is English, while her mother is Nigerian. She is precocious and lonely, feeling out-of-place in both worlds. For companionship, she befriends a girl named Tilly Tilly, while the family is vacationing in Nigeria. The catch is that Tilly Tilly may be an imaginary friend, or perhaps the ghost of Jessamy's twin, who died at birth. According to the beliefs of the Nigerian Yoruba culture, twins inhabit three worlds: the everyday world, the spirit world, and a place called "the bush" that is different from either. Tilly Tilly at first seems to be a positive force in Jessamy's life, and the girl misses her companion when they return to England. Then Tilly Tilly shows up at the back door, looking like a proper English schoolgirl. Her influence becomes increasingly destructive and dangerous, and Jessamy does not know how to get free of her.
A writer for Scotland on Sunday described The Icarus Girl as "written in lyrical prose that sings and dances," and as a "dark and deeply distrubing" book that was apparently "written out of great pain and misery." Noting the elements of magical realism in the story, Library Journal contributor Lisa Nussbaum called it "mesmerizing and haunting." A Publishers Weekly writer drew attention to the author's "confident, heavily stylized prose," but added that despite Jessamy's sophistication, her narration is sometimes a limitation on the book, making the story seem like standard suspense fare.
Reminiscing to Benedicte Page in Bookseller about the book's genesis, Oyeyemi said that after writing the first twenty pages of the story, she sent it to agent Robin Wade."I told him I'd written 150 pages and was half-way through the book; he got back to me the next day and said, 'It's great, send me the rest!' And I was like, 'Noooo!' because I hadn't written it. I asked my English teacher for time off and she let me have three homeworks off, and I was madly writing away. I told my agent I had problems with my computer. It was quite frantic." The result of her efforts "gets a bit farfetched and tedious after a while," mused Karen Campbell in the Boston Globe, but it is nevertheless a "beautifully written and hauntingly memorable debut novel" that is most affecting in its "heartbreaking descriptions" of a child struggling not only with cultural conflicts, but also "with the tribulations of growing up and self-identity in a complicated world."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bookseller, October 8, 2004, Benedicte Page, "More Fun than Homework: Helen Oyeyemi Wrote Her First Novel When She Was Supposed to Be Studying for Her A Levels," interview with Helen Oyeyemi, p. 32.
Boston Globe, June 20, 2005, Karen Campbell, review of The Icarus Girl.
Christian Science Monitor, July 25, 2005, Randy Dotinga, "When the Very Young Write That First Big Book."
Guardian (London, England), January 10, 2005, Anita Sethi, interview with Helen Oyeyemi.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2005, review of The Icarus Girl, p. 310.
Library Journal, May 1, 2005, Lisa Nussbaum, review of The Icarus Girl, p. 75.
Newsweek, July 4, 2005, review of The Icarus Girl, p. 53.
Newsweek International, July 11, 2005, "Snap Judgment," review of The Icarus Girl, p. 57.
Publishers Weekly, April 4, 2005, review of The Icarus Girl, p. 40.
Scotland on Sunday, January 9, 2005, "Reluctant Phoenix Takes Wing," interview with Helen Oyeyemi.
Spectator, March 12, 2005, Olivia Cole, review of The Icarus Girl, p. 55.
Times (London, England), January 1, 2005, Helen Dunmore, review of The Icarus Girl.