Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 7, 2020

Gingerbread (2019), by Helen Oyeyemi

I don’t usually review books I haven’t finished — but I’m making an exception with Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread, because I am so baffled by it, I’d like to know if anyone else has made any sense of it.

I was well out of my comfort zone anyway because it’s an adult novel with fairy-tale elements, but in first four chapters I could see how the author used whimsy to deliver a biting critique of contemporary British society.  But from there onward, I was mostly lost.  When I finally decided to give up at page 155 because the confusion was impenetrable, I sought out some reviews… and I found that everyone else seemed able to make some sense of the first part and then got lost just as I did.

Which makes me wonder what to make of praise like this, from Ron Charles at the Washington Post who isn’t embarrassed to admit that Oyeyemi works in an adjacent realm of dreams where things simultaneously make perfect sense and no sense at all:

Oyeyemi, now 34, isn’t just goosing old fairy tales with contemporary melodies. She’s drawn to what’s most unsettling about these fables: their disorienting logic, their blithe cruelty, their subtle encoding of race and gender. Nor is she in any way beholden to the source material she collects in the dark forest. No matter what characters she’s dealing with, she’s willing to cut off their tales with a carving knife.

Her new novel, “Gingerbread,” is a challenging, mind-bending exploration of class and female power heavily spiced with nutmeg and sweetened with molasses. If you think you know where you’re going in this forest, you’ll soon be lost. Oyeyemi has built her house out of something far more complex than candy.

Mmm, yes… but …at some point, absurdism can just become absurd, and so is any attempt to make sense of it.

Helen Oyeyemi is a British author of Nigerian heritage, and elements of her storytelling style reminded me of other Nigerian authors: Chigozie Obioma (who wrote the widely admired The Fishermen) has the same vivacious chattiness, which, as I understand it, has origins in oral storytelling.  Ben Okri’s The Famished Road features the same kind of non-judgemental narrator as in Gingerbread, with the same endearing impudence.  And though Oyeyemi is similarly dealing with some very serious issues as Harriet relates her life story to her daughter Perdita, the tone is upbeat and often droll, most remarkably even when Perdita attempts suicide.

Hansel and Gretel by Arthur Rackham (1909) Wikipedia)

Gingerbread is known to most of us as a feature of the Hansel and Gretel fairytale, where it is used to lure the children to their doom, but there is also the story of the Gingerbread Man who comes to life as the longed-for but rather unpleasant child of an old man and woman.  There is a kind of malevolence in these representations of the sweet and spicy baked dough, but OTOH there are gingerbread houses as a symbol of love and affection at Christmastime in Germany and the US.   But…

Harriet Lee’s gingerbread is not comfort food. There’s no nostalgia baked into it, no hearkening back to innocent indulgences and jolly times at nursery. It is not humble, nor is it dusty in the crumb.

A gingerbread addict once told Harriet that eating her gingerbread is like eating revenge. “It’s like noshing on the actual and anatomical heart of somebody who scarred your beloved and thought they ’d got away with it, ” the gingerbread addict said. “That heart, ground to ash and shot through with darts of heat, salt, spice, and sulphurous syrup, as if honey was measured out, set ablaze and trickled through the dough along with the liquefied spoon. You are phenomenal. You’ve ruined my life for ever. Thank you. ” (p.1-2)

The gingerbread that Harriet bakes seems to be a kind of currency, a symbol of efforts to belong and their rejection.  As we see when she tries with gifts of gingerbread to bribe her way into social acceptance…

Perdita’s school has a PPA, a Parent Power Association instead of a Parent Teacher Association, and, determined to take her own place in this pantheon, Harriet filled nine tins with gingerbread, wrapped rainbow-coloured ribbon around each tin and attached notecards with the names of each PPA member.  Every single one of the PPA members left the tins on, under or behind their chairs without even opening them, leaving Harriet to wonder whether she had caused offence by mis-spelling names or misidentifying people — she could have been more diligent.  She’d been a bit tired when she wrote the notecards, her head full of the GCSE coursework she’d sat up all night correcting. (p. 10)

Later Harriet realises that she’s been trying to break into an impenetrable in-crowd, formed over twenty years ago, when these parents were prefects at the same school.  Not, we are meant to note, a disdainful cohort of racist middle-class whites, but, rather with their multi-ethnic names from Africa, Asia and Europe, an embodiment of Cool Britannia before the concept had even had a name.  They have wholly absorbed the status-conscious culture which (we are led to believe) clashed with postwar migration from the Commonwealth.

Harriet, by contrast, has only petty ambitions for her daughter: she wanted Perdita to get good marks at school, they wanted her not to cause trouble, not to punish them for being unable to afford the very best of everything for her. Oh, and they wanted her to smile every now and again. 

However, once Perdita is recovering from her failed suicide and Harriet is telling the story of her life before she came to London, things get very messy.  I am not even sure that I have made sense of the strand about Harriet’s birthplace, which appears to be a mythical place:

Druhástrana (druhástranae) is the name of an alleged nation state of indeterminable geographic location. Very little verifiable information concerning Druhástrana is available, as there have been several prominent cases of stateless people claiming Druhástranian citizenship under a form of poetic licence, and other, yet more unfortunate cases in which claims to Druhástranian citizenship or ancestry have been proven to result from false memories or flawed cognitive information.

To date, Druhástrana has been formally recognized by only three nations. (See: Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary.) Slovakia revoked recognition of Druhástrana without explanation on January 1, 2010, and Hungary followed suit on January 1, 2013.

Several prominent thinkers have proposed reclassifying Druhástrana as a purely notional/mythical land since a) nobody seems to actually come from there or know how to get there and b) literal interpretations of the assertion that Druhástrana exists may be a profound mistranslation of Czech humour. (pp. 18-19)

Now it might just be that this apparently invented birthplace is nothing more than a vehicle for the storytelling, and it does offer an opportunity for a dig at Brexit:

The referendum has been the only way to definitively withdraw from the so-called brotherhood of nations; let them see, yes, they’d all see how well they got on without all the contributions Druhástrana has made towards world peace. (p.114)

It also seems to be a critique of landowners, colonialism, the stupidity of the exploited workers and (maybe) a dig at the invisibility of Commonwealth nations in their post-colonial phase.  When the map of the world was coloured pink on the empire where the sun never set, schoolchildren all over the world knew the names and locations of Britain’s possessions, from Kenya to Malaya.  But now? I bet many would be hard pressed to locate Nigeria in the right place in Africa, and indeed it’s a frequent complaint that many people refer to Africa as if it were a nation, and not home to 54 separate countries.

There are acerbic barbs at lotteries, which only teach you that the finer things in life aren’t earned by working round the clock and doing everything you can to uphold the law.  But some elements seem utterly pointless, as when we read that characters are expecting to experience discrimination from a hotel doorman, and then they don’t. A character is 78% happy.  What does that even mean? Is it satirising the way bean counters force data collection about things are fundamentally uncountable?  I don’t know.

Even though I am mindful that there is no shortage of people who dismiss James Joyce in a similar way, I did begin to wonder if this is a case of the of a wilful weaver creating the Emperor’s New Clothes, just to see if she could get away with it.

If you too have also struggled with this book, do share your thoughts about it in comments… and take a moment to enjoy this video of Ron Charles spoofing the work.

Image credits:

Available from Fishpond: Gingerbread

Author: Helen Oyeyemi
Title: Gingerbread
Publisher: Picador (Macmillan), 2019
ISBN: 9781447299431
Review copy courtesy of Macmillan



  1. I was sent this for review but I chose not to read it after a friend told me it was utterly confusing and consequently pointless. We often have similar tastes, so I took her word for it. Reading this from you now and I definitely have no regrets at bypassing this one!


    • Yeah, I’ve just cast my eye over the press release again, and it describes it as ‘endlessly surprising and satisfying’.
      I’ve tried for seven days to read it, and I gave up in frustration.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Perhaps anyone who finished it is endlessly surprised they made it that far…
        Press releases are so misleading at times. Just take Melmoth for example…


  2. Um. Not for me I think. I can understand why you gave up……


    • I’m going to have to be firm with myself and take it to the Op Shop or it will niggle away at me and I’ll keep returning to it. But I really wasn’t enjoying it.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Very interesting review, Lisa. Me – I am not going to read this book. That Washington Post review made me smile 😁 People just keep praising some books these days and it is hard to tell why. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


    • I saw an interesting tweet the other day… I visited the blog and it seemed like the blogger wrote good, thoughtful reviews. But her tweet was about she was undecided about whether to include a controversial comment in her latest review, because she was worried about not getting free books from the publisher in the future.
      And I thought that was a real shame, because whatever she writes now or in the future, her followers are not going to be sure if she’s being honest or not.
      So I think you’re right: it does seem as if some reviewers praise because they think they ought to, or because ‘everyone else’ likes the book or because they fear retribution from the publisher.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ugh, I have a copy of this for review and was planning to read it next week. Having just given up on another book because it was confusing and meandering I’m reluctant to pick another in the same mode….


    • Oh no, I wouldn’t want to put you off like that. You and I have lots of BookTastes in common but there are ones that you like and I don’t, and vice versa. Can I persuade you to at least try for about 100 pages?


      • I’ll definitely give it a go, whether I last 100 pages will be another matter

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Life is too short to ponder mystifying books and authors for too long. I enjoyed the quandry, to a point. It is funny how we don’t like to put a book down unfinished then think about it for ages. Why is that? I hope your next book makes you happier.


    • It is, Pam:) It’s called The Innocent Reader (by Debra Adelaide) and (so far, one chapter) it’s about her childhood life as a reader, so much in common with mine.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I got to the end of it, but can’t remember what happened!? Something to do with travelling to Druhástrana. Although I enjoyed the writing, I was on the whole mystified, & also disappointed, because I quite like Oyeyemi’s work (I taught White is for Witching in my women writers course), & the cover led me to believe that its contents would be delicious …


    • Hi Jess, So you think some of her other books are worth reading?


      • Hi Lisa, Yes, the one I taught was ‘White is for Witching’ (about xenophobia) but I’ve heard many others speak highly of ‘Boy, Snow, Bird’, which is on my TBR list.


        • Thanks, I’ll have a look in the library and see what I can find:)


  7. She also has a collection of short stories which might be good to try if you’re curious enough to want more but simultaneously anxious about investing another chunk of time to feel just as baffled. Heheh

    Some of the feelings you’ve described, I remember feeling while reading WisforW and Boy, Snow, Bird too. Listening to her in interview on a couple of occasions also did help illuminate some of the things that she’s preoccupied but I do still feel that it’s more about my head than my heart when approaching her work. I’ll be curious to see if you have any different experience when you make another attempt. Good luck!


    • The thing that surprised me was that I’ve read a fair few ‘baffling’ books, and a bit of persistence and imagination has enabled me to make my way through the fog. So I think there’s something different about this one that defeats me…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ll just say that I’d be intrigued to see what I thought, but not intrigued enough to seek this one out! Too much else to read.


  9. […] reassuring to find that I was not the only blogger to struggle with Gingerbread – Lisa Hill at ANZLitLovers had similar frustrations though she persevered far longer than I […]


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