What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, by Helen Oyeyemi
Review by Kaley Jemison
Helen Oyeyemi’s latest book, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, is a collection of short stories that ranges from magical realism to the ultramodern. Her stories center on themes of identity, love, and sexuality. They are connected through images of keys both literal and figurative: an ornate key hung on a necklace that opens a secret library’s door to a room key for a hotel that caters to its guests’ every need but never lets them leave.
The first story in the collection, “Books and Roses,” is the most breathtaking. The story opens with a baby, Montse, left at the foot of a Black Madonna statue outside a Catalonia cathedral where she is raised by priests. As she grows up, she continually tests this mysterious key and starts work as a maid for Señora Lucy, an eccentric artist. Lucy’s story interweaves with Montse’s as she describes her passionate love for Safiye. One day Montse reads a newspaper announcement searching for a girl who wears a key that opens a door to a grand library where a letter reveals her past and the magic that occurred between the shelves of books. “Books and Roses” showcases Oyeyemi’s gift with language; eloquent lines like “the air having given something must take something” describe the phenomenon of artistic inspiration. Oyeyemi’s language lends a subtle magic to her stories.
Oyeyemi presents both heteronormative and non-heteronormative relationships, reflecting a modern breadth of romance. As the title suggests, however, Oyeyemi’s most original insights are her subtle explorations of individual identity and privacy within romantic relationships. “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason For That Don’t You Think?”and “Presence” are two such insightful pieces. Written in second person, the former story tells of a new coworker, Eva, who always carries a locked diary with her. When the speaker loses and then finds the diary, she learns why some books should remain locked. This story emphasizes the importance of keeping parts of oneself completely private. The latter story explores the psychology of loss as Jill agrees to be a subject in her husband’s experiment and lives as though he were dead. The story concentrates on an altered time as she flits between life moments, examining the depth of trust and love in relationships even after they are severed.
While many of Oyeyemi’s stories engage in magical realism, one piece, “Dornicka and the St. Martin’s Day Goose,” surpasses the threshold for suspension of disbelief in fiction. Reinterpreting “Little Red Riding Hood,” Oyeyemi’s story centers on Dornicka, a middle-aged, Dutch woman who encounters the fabled Big Bad Wolf on a walk through the woods. Hoping to stop him from eating a young girl in a red cloak, Dornicka promises to bring him something else young and fresh. She returns home to prepare a St. Martin’s Day feast for her guests while wondering how to keep her promise to the wolf. While conceptually distinctive, “Dornicka and the St. Martin’s Day Goose” rapidly strays from the familiar path of “Little Red Riding Hood,” asks for considerable suspension of disbelief, and consequently loses some of its intended humor.
Conversely, “R.I.P. Matyas Fust” and “The Homely Winch Society” are more accessible examples of Oyeyemi’s signature humor, one of the stories’ unifying features. “R.I.P. Matyas Fust” articulates a clever social critique through exaggeration. Teenaged Aisha becomes distraught when she learns that her celebrity crush, Matyas Fust, assaulted a woman. To avenge the loss of her idealized role model, Aisha leaves threatening messages, forces Matyas Fust to publically apologize, and even inflicts a curse on him. Her extreme response underscores a tendency to conflate fame with virtue and the difficulty of reconciling an individual’s appearance and faults. Similarly, “The Homely Winch Society,” as the title suggests, criticizes traditional beauty as an assertion of individual value. The story describes the society’s establishment at a prestigious university. The founders were placed on a list of the most unattractive female students and accordingly were not invited to the annual Bedding Court Society dinner. This comical story celebrates body positivity as future students flock to join the society that promotes intelligence and ambition. Oyeyemi infuses these stories set in a more distant past with modern ideals of a fluid identity. Through her eloquent language, original conflicts, and insight into relationships, Oyeyemi crafts a compelling collection of stories that trace themes of identity and connection.