Born in Nigeria in 1984, author Helen Oyeyemi has lived in the United Kingdom since age 4. Oyeyemi made a name for herself as a writer early on—winning the 2010 Somerset Maugham Award and a 2012 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and being named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2013.
Oyeyemi, who wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, while in England’s equivalent of American high school and followed that up with five widely acclaimed novels and two plays, is a prolific and versatile writer whose work spans a diversity of forms, styles and subject matter. Now Oyeyemi brings us her first collection of short stories: What Is Not Your Is Not Yours. The nine stories range from the serious to the ironic, from the humorous to the darkly comedic—but all revolve around themes of ownership, individual agency and boundaries; or, in other words, around the titular idea that “what is not yours is not yours.”
The collection begins with “Books and Roses,” the tale of Montserrat, who was abandoned as a baby in a Catalan church with only a brief note and a small, necklace-hung key. Raised by priests, Montserrat strikes out on her own as an adult, obtaining work first in a haberdashery and then a laundry, where Montserrat finally discovers the secret her key unlocks. “Books and Roses” is the experience of entering doors within doors, each segment of the short story opening outward to reveal the many intimate and interconnected intricacies of life: the chance meeting that blossoms into affection, then love; the single turning point that changes one’s actions and defines the course of one’s life.
In the next story, “‘Sorry Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,” Ched asks his best friend, Anton, to take care of Ched’s murderous Siamese fighting fish while Ched is away completing his two years of mandatory military service. For Anton, this task is a cakewalk compared to navigating his two adolescent stepdaughters’ path through the ongoing media coverage of the sexually abusive actions of the youngest’s beloved male rock idol. This more contemporary tale, while beginning in a humorous tone, opens up into a darker meditation on fame, violence and the voices we choose to listen to.
“Is Your Blood as Red as This?,” the following story, is about nerdy teenager Radha, who divides her time between exploring a friendship with a ghost and tagging along after her much cooler older brother, Arjun—until she falls in love with a fellow schoolgirl named Myrna and enters the ultracompetitive, dangerous world of their school’s puppeteering club. The fairy-tale-inspired “Drownings” is next. It’s a story about the tyranny of rulers and injustice of power, while “Presence” navigates the murky waters of a marriage between two psychologists with childhood abandonment issues.
The ensuing “A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society” concerns a fictional sisterhood created at Cambridge University in 1949 in answer to the institution’s brotherhood. Here, Dayang Sharif, a second-year English-literature major, desperate to join the secret sisterhood, balances her studies and friendships with her burgeoning—and forbidden—feelings for Hercules, a classmate in the brotherhood. A compelling take on “Little Red Riding Hood” makes up the plot of the following story, “Dornička and the St. Martin’s Day Goose,” while the penultimate story, “Freddy Barrandov Checks … In?” explores a son’s desire to retain his autonomy while under pressure from his parents to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“Every time someone comes out of the lift in the building where you work you wish lift doors were made of glass” is how “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think,” the last story of the collection, begins. “That way you’d be able to see who’s arriving a little before they actually arrive and there’d be just enough time to prepare the correct facial expression,” the story continues. It is a deft exploration of the modern anxiety of workplace social interactions. Here, all employees are obsessed with the newest hire, the taciturn Eva, until office opinion turns against her. Eva becomes the target of office harassment, and the resulting theft of her diary brings the situation to a head.
Throughout What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, we move in time from the present to the past and inhabit the perspectives of women, men and children of all ages, ethnicities and sexual orientations. Oyeyemi’s style is at times akin to a dream or a fairy tale, sometimes a more hard-edged realism. It is a testament to her talent that each widely different character and world feels as sharply realized, deeply felt and authentic as the rest.
Oyeyemi’s voice—at times playful, at times serious—is always imbued with an authority that leads the reader gracefully through each narrative. The writing is lively and rich in detail, reveling in the unexpected joy of discovery. Here is the delightful union of vivid language, compelling plot, resonant characters and profound meaning that we turn to literature to find.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.