Influenced by the mysterious place gingerbread holds in classic children’s stories – equal parts wholesome and uncanny, from the tantalizing witch’s house in “Hansel and Gretel” to the man-shaped confection who one day decides to run as fast as he can – beloved novelist Helen Oyeyemi invites readers into a delightful tale of a surprising family legacy, in which the inheritance is a recipe.
Perdita Lee may appear to be your average British schoolgirl; Harriet Lee may seem just a working mother trying to penetrate the school social hierarchy; but there are signs that they might not be as normal as they think they are. For one thing, they share a gold-painted, seventh-floor walk-up apartment with some surprisingly verbal vegetation. And then there’s the gingerbread they make. Londoners may find themselves able to take or leave it, but it’s very popular in Druhástrana, the far away (and, according to Wikipedia, non-existent) land of Harriet’s Lee early youth. In fact, the world’s truest lover of the Lee family gingerbread is Harriet’s charismatic childhood friend, Gretel Kercheval – a figure who seems to have had a hand in everything (good or bad) that has happened to Harriet since they met.
Decades later, when teenaged Perdita sets out to find her mother’s long-lost friend, it prompts a new telling of Harriet’s story. As the book follows the Lees through encounters with jealousy, ambition, family grudges, work, wealth, and real estate, gingerbread seems to be the one thing that reliably holds a constant value. Endlessly surprising and satisfying, written with Helen Oyeyemi’s inimitable style and imagination, it is a true feast for the reader.
I was very disappointed with this book: I really, really wanted to like it, but it turned out it just wasn’t for me at all. I have a difficult relationship with magical realism overall, as it tends to be a little hit-and-miss for me, and Gingerbread sadly was a definite miss.
I was very confused throughout the whole book, and really struggled to understand what was going on. Navigating the shifting timelines and keeping track of the multitude of characters was also difficult and definitely did not help my confusion. I was left extremely frustrated by it all, and really struggled to get through this.
That being said, I loved the book’s concept. The storyline was very original, and integrated traditional fairytale elements seamlessly to construct a brand new world. I also liked how the original fairytale was the starting point to explore contemporary issues, touching on everything from family and relationships to belonging, tradition, feeling “other” and so much more. The cast was also wonderfully diverse without it feeling obnoxious, which was refreshing.
Overall, this was a definite case of “it’s not you, it’s me”. There was plenty here that I would have loved to love, but it just didn’t work out for me.