“Consent is a downward motion, I think – a leap or a fall – and whether they’ll admit it or not, even the most decisive people can find themselves unable to tell whether or not their consent was freely given. That inability to discover whether you jumped or were pushed brings about a deadened gaze and a downfall all its own.”
Helen Oyeyemi’s “What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours” is a stunning collection of subtly interwoven short stories, tales of locks and keys both literal and figurative. Oyeyemi’s stories tell of secrets and secretive natures, of guards and guardedness. Many of her characters are profoundly awkward, uneasy in their own skins and in a world that seems wholly other to them. Some use puppets to connect with the world, while others channel stories and books.
Though characters may appear across stories, the ties that bind this collection are the focus on “unlocking” life and on personalities who feel themselves apart from the world around them.
“City people only talk to people they’re already acquainted with, so as to avoid strangers speaking to them with annoying over-familiarity or in words that aren’t immediately comprehensible. And everybody in the city is just so terribly bored. Show a city dweller wonders and they’ll yawn or take a photo and send it to somebody else with a message that says ‘Wow.'”
“What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours” has an air of the confessional. The reader is often spoken to directly, the protagonists’ deepest inner thoughts unwittingly exposed.
“When you took the glove puppet he alternated between flirtatious and suicidal, hell-bent on flinging himself from great heights and out of windows. I noticed that you didn’t make a voice or a history for the puppet, but you became its voice and history. I’d have liked to admire that but felt I was watching a distressing form of theft, since the puppet could do nothing but suffer being forced open like an oyster.”
The tone of direct address and confession is emotionally effective. As a reader you can’t help but feel drawn to the characters, in on their secrets.
Not only are Oyeyemi’s characters confessional; they are also irresistibly wry and witty. Her words, and their thoughts, are cleverly cutting.
“Myrna had assumed command over two boys who lived in the flat above her own: Jindrich and Kirill, the Topol brothers. Myrna was both boys’ grand passion … they called her ‘London’ and longed for a chance to rescue her from some danger or other. Sometimes one brother would menace her so that the other could defend her, even though she’d emphasized from the beginning that all she required of them was that they both die for her if and when such endeavor became necessary.”
“‘Where do you see yourself in ten year’s time’ she asked.
My answer: ‘Not sure, but maybe on a beach reading a really good mystery. Not a murder mystery, but the kind where the narrator has to find out what year it is and why he was even born…'”
I had been looking forward to reading this book for quite some time, and my anticipation was warranted. I loved Oyeyemi’s voice and was thrilled both by her creativity and charm. I was also struck by some of the unexpected elements of her work, such as how many of the stories had a very Eastern European fairy tale tone to them, especially surprising given Oyeyemi’s heritage as a Nigerian-born British woman. Many of the stories seemed like Slavic lore, with horrors and magic in spades. Another unexpected element of Oyeyemi’s stories that I absolutely loved was the subtle omnipresence of homosexuality. Without making it overt or special, gay characters quietly populate every story the way they populate our world; sexuality was fluid and incidental, not a central personality trait or explicit plot point. Oyeyemi’s writing may be the most seamless and natural handling of sexuality that I have ever come across in literature.
The verdict is clear: “What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours” is made to be yours. Read it!