Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

I had an imaginary friend. Her name was Cousin Jane and she lived in the sewer. I could call her on the fire hydrant that was the same color as her hair. I don't know where she came from or when she left, but I know that I never saw her--I simply knew what she looked like. She was my cousin, you know?

The Icarus Girl is about an unpopular, sickly, and somewhat sad girl named Jessamy, or "Jess," who lives in London with her Anglo dad and Nigerian mom. The book plays with permutations of cleaving and doubling: Jess's "mixed" parentage and the division of her life between sickness and health are two of the more subtle examples of that. The more central doubling occurs when Jess and family go to Nigeria for a month. Jess feels better with all the aunties and cousins, but still on the outside. When she goes exploring the family compound she catches a message just for her: "Then her eye caught on something and she backed, all thoughts of staircases and balconies and upstairs rooms completely forgotten.

On the surface of the tabletop, someone had disturbed the dust. Scrawled in the centre in lopsided lettering were the words HEllO JEssY"

This is Jess's first introduction to a mysterious, mischievous girl that she nicknames Tilly or TillyTilly. But what exactly is TillyTilly? And what does she want with Jess? I loved how Oyeyemi shows the danger inherent in Tilly's seduction by letting the reader see the manipulation that Jess, as an 8 year-old, can't. When Tilly shows up on Jess's London doorstep things get really good.

Sure, this book is a first novel, and that shows occasionally, but The Icarus Girl is scary, very scary. It's a horror book dressed up like a literary novel about the trials of youth and the dangers of loneliness. I stayed up all night reading it, by coincidence in my childhood bedroom, and deep in the dark, I got the for-real shivers. Cousin Jane stopped calling long before my teens but just for a moment I experienced the feeling of the fire hydrant suddenly sounding into the night.

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