Helen Oyeyemi’s name was in the wind. I heard her mentioned in the book I was listening to on Audible, The World Between Two Covers, and a friend suggested reading Oyeyemi’s celebrated Mr. Fox for a book club discussion. When Nancy Hightower of the Washington Post described Oyeyemi’s collection of short stories What Is Yours Is Not Yours as ” a series of loosely connected, magically tinged tales about personal and social justice,” and NPR called her writing masterpieces, I decided it was time to read her. Besides, the library conveniently produced What Is Your Is Not Yours in a day. The universe must be calling.
Keys and locks connect the nine short stories, and as I read the first – “books and roses,” I had the same feeling I get when reading Haruki Murakami – what was I missing? Some important undercurrent lurked just beyond my grasp, and if I could decipher the meaning, the reward would be great. Despite rereading the first story, I’m still not sure.
Montserrat, a foundling girl left in a Catalonia chapel with a key hanging around her neck. grows up and finds work in a laundry, where she encounters Señora Lucy, a painter who also wears a key. The strange connection between the two women’s unrelated stories surprisingly merge at the end when Montserrat discovers she and Lucy are linked, as the keys unlock a beautiful garden, and a window into their lives.
Oyeyemi used revealing language to underscore her messages, and comprehension of her plots seemed secondary to reading her words, so I continued.
“Some new tax that only people with no money had to pay. Or yet another member of the county police force was found to have been an undercover gangster. If not that then a gang member was found to have been an undercover police officer. An Ottoman-style restaurant opened in a town nearby; it served no food but had a mineral water menu tens of pages long, and fashion models came to drink their way through it while we played football with their bodyguards.”
The second story “‘sorry’ doesn’t sweeten her tea,” begins with a house of locks and two friends, a rock star, and you-tube. Sisters Day and Aisha, who are being raised by their father and his boyfriend, deal with the news that their favorite singer has been accused of savagely beating a woman.When the rock star is exposed by the victim on you-tube, his fans’ reaction is to praise rather than condemn him, and he cynically uses his exposure as a vehicle for his next popular song. Young Aisha, an ardent fan, now demands not only accountability but also his repentance. The ending is satisfying, if other worldly, but had me wondering how we would all like to see some comeuppance for those who tend to “get away with it.”
Happy to have found Helen Oyeyemi, I will keep reading – seven more short stories in this book, and hope I will be able to discuss them with someone who has read them.
Related Review: Haruki Murakami