Book 17: ‘What is not yours is not yours’ by Helen Oyeyemi


About the book:

This is a collection of 9 short stories published in 2016, built around the idea of ‘keys’, exploring the opening and closing of houses, secret gardens, books and human hearts. These stories set in different places and time zones can be categorised as belonging to magical realism because many times ‘a highly realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe’. Though it is not prudent to compare Helen Oyeyemi with Marquez, Borges or Angela Carter, if you enjoyed reading them, you would not fail to appreciate a similarity in the nature of these stories. ‘Bigarrure’ is a French word that appears in one of the stories and the word meaning is ‘a medley of sundry colours running together’ or ‘a discourse running oddly and fantastically, from one matter to another’. I feel there is no need to search for another apt word to describe this story collection. It is ‘bigarrure’ with a variegated mix of different people and their stories.

My personal favourite among these stories is the first one titled, ‘Books and roses’. I discern that this story in particular has stupendously changed a minuscule part in me. It is more than just a coincidence that the last story in this collection( ‘If a book is locked, there is probably a good reason why, don’t you think?’), which is my second favourite, also has ‘book’ in its title.

About the author:

Helen Oyeyemi is a 32 year old British writer born in Nigeria, who published her first novel at the age of nineteen. She has 5 novels and two plays to her credit and this short story collection is the most recent one. She received the Somerset Maugham award in 2010 and was included in Granta Young British Novelists list in 2013. She won the PEN Open book award in 2016 for this short story collection.

What I found unique in this collection:

  1. This is my first experience reading short stories where a single inanimate object like a key occupied a literal and metaphorical role in all the stories in a collection. Of course, I have come across books with stories on themes like gender, war, exile, immigrants etc. But what makes this collection special is Helen Oyeyeami’s proficiency in incorporating an inert object like a key in all the stories, making her one of the most  inventive and promising writers in English.
  2. Generally multiple plots and characters are features that distinguish a novel from a short story. A short story usually revolves around a single plot with limited number of characters. I was taken aback when I realised that each short story written by Oyeyemi had the potential to become a novel on its own. The moment you decided the story was going to be about a particular character, the narration effortlessly unfolded in some other uncharted direction and left you gasping and astonished. At every turn of a page, there existed the possibility of a new character or sub story awaiting discovery. Kate Clanchy in Guardian has aptly reviewed this collection as ‘it’s all about misdirection’.
  3. Usually short stories, due to their limitation in length, fail to create a powerful imagery in our minds as deftly as a novel does. In a well written novel, the time spend with the characters is longer and hence many a times, reading a good novel evokes the feeling of having lived with the characters in it. Helen Oyeyemi has wonderfully crafted her short stories that while I read it, I was transported in time and space to that world, unsure of the breach in real and imaginary.

Why I recommend this book:

Helen Oyeyemi’s exceptional writing style reminded me of the ease of flow of a river. No hurdles. No complicated sentences. No difficult words.  You don’t even realise how one word, sentence, character or image merges , complementing each other. Continuity in narration simulated the experience of watching a movie uninterrupted.  Or perhaps it evoked the feeling of a dream. If you love to dream while awake, if you enjoy being transgressed beyond the confines of your four walls, please don’t hesitate to get hold of this book! People who cannot appreciate the beauty of dreams or  magical realism as a genre, please stay away!


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