The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
Here’s the most remarkable detail about this debut novel: Nigerian-born, London-raised Helen Oyeyemi wrote this book in seven weeks (!) just before she turned 19, in the midst of studying for her A-level exams (Britain’s upper level, pre-university standardized tests). Both endeavors proved highly successful: Icarus got her a lucrative two-book publishing deal and she went off to prestigious Cambridge University. Six years since her powerful debut, Oyeyemi’s fourth novel publishes Stateside this September; she’s also produced two plays (published in one volume) in addition to her novels.
In Icarus, young Jessamy Harrison is just 8, the only child of a Nigerian mother and English father. She’s intellectually gifted – she loves haiku, reads (and understands) Shakespeare, is advanced in school – but she seems to prefer isolation, is partial to hiding for hours in the hall cupboard, lacks friends at school, has uncontrollable tantrums and inexplicable illnesses. During a family trip to Nigeria – “Because it all STARTED in Nigeria” – Jess meets Titiola, who she calls TillyTilly, a mysterious little girl just her age who seems to know more about Jess and her family than Jess herself.
When Jess returns to London, Jess’s adjustment to her new class is less than smooth. She’s initially relieved to find that TillyTilly has unexpectedly moved into her neighborhood … or has she? Who is TillyTilly? Why doesn’t anyone else notice her, even see her? How can she do some of the things she does … and can Jess be like her, too? You can almost hear the eerie, piercing soundtrack as this fraught, changing, challenging relationship plays out …
Icarus Girl is a huge endeavor. Issues – most definitely with a capital ‘I’ – abound, from bullying to cruel violence, from mixed-race identity issues to racism, from mental illness to other-world possession, from parental withdrawal to outright abuse, from so-called organized religion to indigenous beliefs and practices. Obviously, Oyeyemi can write – with imaginative passages both lyrical and cunning, spooky surprises, and mind-bending reality. That said, her precocious literary prowess remains still very much in development in her first work, and surely her age garnered her more sales and accolades than she might have received if she had been a decade older. Now that that decade is fast approaching (Oyeyemi turns 27 this year), she’s definitely proven she’s got staying power!