The Icarus Girl

The Icarus Girl

4.0 11
by Helen Oyeyemi
     
 

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Jessamy “Jess” Harrison, age eight, is the child of an English father and a Nigerian mother. Possessed of an extraordinary imagination, she has a hard time fitting in at school. It is only when she visits Nigeria for the first time that she makes a friend who understands her: a ragged little girl named TillyTilly. But soon TillyTilly’s visits become…  See more details below

Overview

Jessamy “Jess” Harrison, age eight, is the child of an English father and a Nigerian mother. Possessed of an extraordinary imagination, she has a hard time fitting in at school. It is only when she visits Nigeria for the first time that she makes a friend who understands her: a ragged little girl named TillyTilly. But soon TillyTilly’s visits become more disturbing, until Jess realizes she doesn’t actually know who her friend is at all. Drawing on Nigerian mythology, Helen Oyeyemi presents a striking variation on the classic literary theme of doubles — both real and spiritual — in this lyrical and bold debut.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Lesley Downer
The Icarus Girl explores the melding of cultures and the dream time of childhood, as well as the power of ancient lore to tint the everyday experiences of a susceptible little girl's seemingly protected life. Deserving of all its praise, this is a masterly first novel -- and a nightmarish story that will haunt Oyeyemi's readers for months to come.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The story of a troubled eight-year-old haunted and ultimately possessed by family secrets, this spooky debut novel from a 20-year-old Nigerian-born Cambridge student is sure to garner attention for its precocity and literary self-consciousness. The sensitive protagonist, Jessamy Harrison, born to a British father and Nigerian mother, writes haikus and reads Shakespeare, but regularly throws tantrums and avoids social interaction both at school and at home. As an intervention, her parents take her to stay with family in Nigeria for the summer. At her grandfather's compound, she encounters TillyTilly, a mysterious girl who seems to know everything about Jess and who, Jess realizes, is not visible to anyone else. In Nigeria with TillyTilly, Jess finds a sense of belonging and intimacy for the first time, but when Jess returns to England, TillyTilly becomes less comforting and more troublesome. In confident, heavily stylized prose, Oyeyemi illustrates Jess's cultural dislocation, using both Nigerian and Christian imagery to evoke a sense of her unreality. As sophisticated as she is, Jess's eight-year-old observations provide a limited lens, and at times, the novel's fantasy element veers into young adult suspense territory. Agent, Robin Wade. (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
KLIATT
Beautifully constructed and restrained prose is the vehicle by which Oyeyemi realizes for readers a young girl's frightening struggle with cultural clashes and mental health. Jess, the eight-year-old daughter of a Nigerian mother and British father, has grown up in a middle class and intellectual home in England. Her mother is a well educated, apparently wholly assimilated author; and her father is a quiet and patient man. Jess herself is what might once have been termed high-strung: usually quiet and unassuming, she's also given to screaming fits at school--where she's a year ahead of her age peers--and has difficulty eating in front of people she doesn't know well. In an effort to try to connect Jess to some adequate roots, her parents take her to visit her mother's family in Nigeria. That family is large and welcoming and the only upsetting distraction for Jess during this visit is her acquaintance with a local girl, seemingly a bit older than she, who insists upon taking Jess on various mischievous adventures. Jess feels conflicted about this girl Tilly Tilly, who, on the one hand, seems to be the best friend Jess has never had, and on the other, seems frighteningly disrespectful of basic social rules. When the family returns to England after several weeks, Jess is surprised to find that Tilly Tilly has moved to her neighborhood. Only at this half-way point in the novel does the reader begin to question whether Tilly exists beyond Jess's own imagination or persona. Oyeyemi, who was under 20 herself when she wrote this novel, is an astute social observer as well as psychologist: she draws Jess's confusions, her parents' reactions, the influences of vying cultures, the extended familyand Jess's British acquaintances with great balance and realism. An excellent choice for book discussion, both by literary teens and adults. KLIATT Codes: SA--Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2005, Random House, Anchor, 337p., $13.95.. Ages 15 to adult.
—Francisca Goldsmith
Library Journal
Eight-year-old Jessamy has trouble making friends at home in England. Sensitive and brainy, she prefers reading during recess to going outside and playing games. She is also prone to throwing tantrums, much to the chagrin of her teachers and her Nigerian mother and British father, who simply don't know what to do to prevent these outbursts. In the hopes of boosting her self-confidence and helping her get along with others, her parents take her on a month-long vacation to Nigeria to spend time with her family. There, in addition to meeting her cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandfather, she makes an invisible friend, TillyTilly, who is likely a replacement for her stillborn twin sister. At first, TillyTilly proves a great companion, playmate, and protector. But when the family returns home, TillyTilly comes with them, this time turning Jessamy and her family's world upside down. Oyeyemi, who wrote this book at the tender age of 19, intertwines folk tales from different cultures to spin this mesmerizing and haunting story. Recommended for medium and larger public and academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/05.]-Lisa Nussbaum, Dauphin Cty. Lib. Syst., Harrisburg, PA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-This first novel, completed before its author turned 20, uses elements of Yoruba and Western myths to create a tale of psychological horror with echoes of both Henry James and Stephen King. When British academic star Jessamy Harrison is skipped ahead a year in school (to the pride of her English father and Nigerian mother), the nervous eight-year-old finds the change difficult. Unable to make friends or to cope with teasing about her mixed-race status, she breaks down in screaming tantrums and is prey to odd, feverish illnesses. During a family trip to Nigeria, Jess is elated to make her first friend, a fey girl nicknamed TillyTilly who is devoted to her-and who may be invisible. Delight turns to anxiety when Tilly reveals a shocking secret, and then to horror as she demonstrates her capacity for cruel magic. Is Tilly real? A spirit? An extension of Jess's personality? The creepy ambiguity persists until and beyond the disturbing denouement. Related entirely from Jess's perspective, the book perfectly captures the fear and confusion of a child confronted by inexplicable circumstances, although thinly drawn other characters and a somewhat repetitive structure make it less than a total success. Still, Oyeyemi is a talent to watch.-Starr E. Smith, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A mixed-race eight-year-old girl is haunted by her imaginary friend, family secrets and the two cultures she inhabits. Oyeyemi's much-publicized debut, completed shortly before her 19th birthday, enters the troubled mind of Jessamy Harrison, the "half-and-half" daughter of a Nigerian mother and British father. Nervy and alienated, Jessamy finds the world too fast and expectant. Oyeyemi drip-feeds her problems: she has trouble eating in front of strangers, is bullied at school, takes refuge in cupboards and often resorts to screaming tantrums. On a first family visit to Nigeria she meets Titiola-or TillyTilly-a friend who has magic powers but forbids Jess to talk about her: "Can't you tell that I'm not supposed to be there." Back home, Jess is first ill, then in difficulties again at school, so is thrilled when TillyTilly reappears, an ally who seems able to sneak invisibly into the homes of her enemies. But who is TillyTilly? A figment of Jess's feverish brain, her alter ego, the expression of her angry or divided self? Even Jess begins to suspect her friend isn't real, leading to TillyTilly's revelation that Jess had a twin sister, Fern, who was stillborn. Oyeyemi ratchets up the horror as Jess begins to fear her jealous friend's powers of invasion and destruction. Her parents respond impulsively, sometimes angrily, to the developing mayhem, leading TillyTilly to "get" Jess's father, who falls into a depressive illness. A psychologist is brought in, but precocious Jess can see through his techniques, and TillyTilly wrecks the relationship by harming his daughter, Jess's new friend Shivs. Narrated from Jess's point-of-view, this ambitious psychodrama becomes repetitive in structure andcan't always sustain the adult tone. A conclusion in Nigeria attempts to knit Jess's three worlds-the actual, the spiritual and the "Bush"-but doesn't wholly rescue or resolve a story rich in material yet technically imbalanced. Not enough consistent magic in this extended metaphor on cultural, social and psychological conflict.
From the Publisher
“Oyeyemi brilliantly conjures up the raw emotions and playground banter of childhood. . . . A masterly first novel.”–The New York Times Book Review“Oyeyemi writes about childhood as if she were not inventing but truly remembering it, not through the distancing lens of time, but as scary and magical as it really was.” –San Francisco Chronicle"Remarkable. . . . As original as it is unsettling, The Icarus Girl runs straight at the heart of what it means to belong.– O, The Oprah Magazine“[The Icarus Girl] provides evidence of a vivid imagination capable of moving freely between cultures and continents. . . .Haunting and suspense-filled.”–The Washington Post Book World

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307428738
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
12/18/2007
Sold by:
Random House
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
352
Sales rank:
678,035
File size:
362 KB

Read an Excerpt

ONE


"Jess?"

Her mother's voice sounded through the hallway, mixing with the mustiness around her so well that the sound almost had a smell. To Jess, sitting in the cupboard, the sound of her name was strange, wobbly, misformed, as if she were inside a bottle, or a glass cube, maybe, and Mum was outside it, tapping.

I must have been in here too long--

"Jessamy!" Her mother's voice was stern.

Jessamy Harrison did not reply.

She was sitting inside the cupboard on the landing, where the towels and other linen were kept, saying quietly to herself, I am in the cupboard.

She felt that she needed to be saying this so that it would be real. It was similar to her waking up and saying to herself, My name is Jessamy. I am eight years old.

If she reminded herself that she was in the cupboard, she would know exactly where she was, something that was increasingly difficult each day. Jess found it easier not to remember, for example, that the cupboard she had hidden in was inside a detached house on Langtree Avenue.

It was a small house. Her cousin Dulcie's house was quite a lot bigger, and so was Tunde Coker's. The house had three bedrooms, but the smallest one had been taken over and cheerily cluttered with books, paper and broken pens by Jess's mum. There were small patches of front and back garden which Jess's parents, who cited lack of time to tend them and lack of funds to get a gardener, both readily referred to as "appalling." Jess preferred cupboards and enclosed spaces to gardens, but she liked the clumpy lengths of brownish grass that sometimes hid earthworms when it was wet, and she liked the mysterious plants (weeds, according to her father) that bent and straggled around the inside of the fence.

Both the cupboard and the house were in Crankbrook, not too far from Dulcie's house in Bromley. In Jess's opinion, this proximity was unfortunate. Dulcie put Jess in mind of a bad elf--all sharp chin and silver-blonde hair, with chill blue-green lakes for eyes. Even when Dulcie didn't have the specific intention of smashing a hole through Jess's fragile peace, she did anyway. In general, Jess didn't like life outside the cupboard.

Outside the cupboard, Jess felt as if she was in a place where everything moved past too fast, all colours, all people talking and wanting her to say things. So she kept her eyes on the ground, which pretty much stayed the same.

Then the grown-up would say, "What's the matter, Jess? Why are you sad?" And she'd have to explain that she wasn't sad, just tired, though how she could be so tired in the middle of the day with the sun shining and everything, she didn't know. It made her feel ashamed.

"JESSAMY!"

"I am in the cupboard," she whispered, moving backwards and stretching her arms out, feeling her elbows pillowed by thick, soft masses of towel. She felt as if she were in bed.

A slit of light grew as the cupboard door opened and her mother looked in at her. Jess could already smell the stain of thick, wrong-flowing biro ink, the way it smelt when the pen went all leaky. She couldn't see her mum's fingers yet, but she knew that they would be blue with the ink, and probably the sleeves of the long yellow T-shirt she was wearing as well. Jess felt like laughing because she could see only half of her mum's face, and it was like one of those Where's Spot? books. Lift the flap to find the rest. But she didn't laugh, because her mum looked sort of cross. She pushed the door wider open.

"You were in here all this time?" Sarah Harrison asked, her lips pursed.

Jess sat up, trying to gauge the situation. She was getting good at this.

"Yeah," she said hesitantly.

"Then why didn't you answer?"

"Sorry, Mummy."

Her mother waited, and Jessamy's brow wrinkled as she scanned her face, perplexed. An explanation was somehow still required.

"I was thinking about something," she said, after another moment.

Her mum leaned on the cupboard door, trying to peer into the cupboard, trying, Jess realised, to see her face.

"Didn't you play out with the others today?" she asked.

"Yeah," Jessamy lied. She had just caught sight of the clock. It was nearly six now, and she had hidden herself in the landing cupboard after lunch.

She saw her mum's shoulders relax and wondered why she got so anxious about things like this. She'd heard her say lots of times, in lowered tones, that maybe it wasn't right for Jessamy to play by herself so much, that it wasn't right that she seemed to have nothing to say for herself. In Nigeria, her mother had said, children were always getting themselves into mischief, and surely that was better than sitting inside reading and staring into space all day. But her father, who was English and insisted that things were different here, said it was more or less normal behaviour and that she'd grow out of it. Jess didn't know who was right; she certainly didn't feel as if she was about to run off and get herself into mischief, and she wasn't sure whether she should hope to or not.

Her mother held out a hand and grasping it, Jess reluctantly left her towel pillows and stepped out on to the landing. They stood there for a second, looking at each other, then her mother crouched and took Jessamy's face in her hands, examining her. Jess held still, tried to assume an expression that would satisfy whatever her mother was looking for, although she could not know what this was.

Then her mum said quietly. "I didn't hear the back door all day."

Jessamy started a little.

"What?"

Her mum let go of her, shook her head, laughed. Then she said, "How would you like for us to go to Nigeria?"

Jess, still distracted, found herself asking, "Who?"

Sarah laughed.

"Us! You, me and Daddy!"

Jess felt stupid.

"Ohhhhh," she said. "In an aeroplane?"

Her mum, who was convinced that this was the thing to bring Jessamy out of herself, smiled.

"Yes! In an aeroplane! Would you like that?"

Jess began to feel excited. To Nigeria! In an aeroplane! She tried to imagine Nigeria, but couldn't. Hot. It would be hot.

"Yeah," she said, and smiled.

But if she had known the trouble it would cause, she would have shouted "No!" at the top of her voice and run back into the cupboard. Because it all STARTED in Nigeria, where it was hot, and, although she didn't realise this until much later, the way she felt might have been only a phase, and she might have got better if only (oh, if only if only if ONLY, Mummy) she hadn't gone.


Jess liked haiku.

She thought they were incredible and really sort of terrible. She felt, when reading over the ones she'd written herself, as if she were being punched very hard, just once, with each haiku.

One day, Jess spent six hours spread untidily across her bedroom floor, chin in hand, motionless except for the movement of her other hand going back and forth across the page. She was writing, crossing out, rewriting, fighting with words and punctuation to mould her sentiment into the perfect form. She continued in the dark without getting up to switch on a light, but eventually she sank and sank until her head was on the paper and her neck was stretching slightly painfully so that she could watch her hand forming letters with the pencil. She didn't sharpen the pencil, but switched to different colours instead, languidly patting her hand out in front of her to pick up a pencil that had rolled into her path. Her parents, looking in on her and seeing her with her cheek pressed against the floor, thought that she had fallen asleep, and her father tiptoed into the room to lift her into bed, only to be disconcerted by the gleam of her wide-open eyes over the top of her arm. She gave no resistance to his putting her into bed and tucking her in, but when her father checked on her again after three hours or so, he found that she had noiselessly relocated herself back on the floor, writing in the dark. The haiku phase lasted a week before she fell ill with the same quietness that she had pursued her interest.

When she got better, she realised she didn't like haiku anymore.


In the departure lounge at the airport, Jess sat staring at her shoes and the way they sat quietly beside each other, occasionally clicking their heels together or putting right heel to left toe.

Did they do that by themselves?

She tried to not think about clicking her heels together, then watched her feet to see if the heels clicked independently. They did. Then she realised that she had been thinking about it.

When she looked about her, she noticed that everything was too quiet. Virtually no one was talking. Some of the people she looked at stared blankly back at her, and she quickly swivelled in her seat and turned her attention on to her father. He was reading a broadsheet, chin in hand as his eyes, narrowed with concentration behind the spectacle lenses, scanned the page. He looked slightly awkward as he attempted to make room for the paper across his knees; his elbows created a dimple in the paper every time he adjusted his position. When he became aware of her gaze, he gave her a quick glance, smiled, nudged her, then returned to his reverie. On the bench opposite her sat an immense woman wearing the most fantastical traditional dress she had ever seen. Yellow snakes, coiled up like golden orange peel, sprang from the beaks of the vivid red birds with outstretched wings which soared across the royal blue background of the woman's clothing. Jess called it eero ahty booby whenever she tried to imitate her mum's pronunciation of it. Sometimes, when her mum was having some of her friends around, she would dress up in traditional costume, tying the thick cloth with riotous patterns around her head like a turban, looping it over her ears. She would put on the knee-length shirt with the embroidered scoop neck, and let Jess run her fingers over the beautiful stitching, often gold, silver or a tinselly green. Then her mum would run her fingers over the elaborate embroidery herself, and smile, turning her head from side to side as she regarded her reflection in the bedroom mirror. Iro ati buba, she would say, lapsing from her English accent into the broad, almost lilting Yoruba one. This is iro ati buba. Then she would wrap the longest, widest sheet of dyed cloth around her waist, over the bottom half of the scoop-necked top, and fold it over once, twice, three times, her fingers moving across the material with the loving carelessness of one who could dress this way in the dark. Her mum, standing smiling in the bedroom, her costume so bright it seemed to stretch the space between the walls.

The thought made Jess smile as she sat waiting with everyone else, looking at this woman, who stared back at her, her small eyes squinting out from their folds of flesh, the fluorescent lighting giving her skin an odd, flat finish, as if the dark brown was catching light and not throwing it out again. Jess kept her eyes fixed on the woman, caught by her gaze, gradually growing frightened, as if somehow she could not look away or let this woman out of her sight. Would that be dangerous, to not look while being looked at?


On the plane, Jess threw a tantrum.

It was Nigeria. That was the problem.

Nigeria felt ugly.

Nye. Jeer. Reeee. Ah.

It was looming out from across all the water and land that they had to cross in the aeroplane, reaching out for her with spindly arms made of dry, crackling grass like straw, wanting to pull her down against its beating heart, to the centre of the heat, so she would pop and crackle like marshmallow. She had been reading about Nigeria for the past month, and her excitement had grown so much that she had nearly succumbed to that peculiar febrile illness of hers again, but recovered just in time for the yellow fever and hepatitis C injections that she needed. The anti-malaria tablets were disgusting, coating her tongue like thick, sickly chalk.

It was the combination of the two white pills and the leering idea of her mother's country that made her begin to struggle and thrash, screaming, half dangling headfirst out of the seat, nearly choking on her seat belt, fighting off her mother's hands as she snaked herself away from the little chalk circles. Inside her head, she could hear her skin blistering, could almost feel it, and she tried to outscream the sound. She could hear herself. She felt other people looking, heard people stirring, muttering, and felt good to be making this sharp, screeching, hurting noise. Yet some part of her was sitting hunched up small, far away, thinking scared thoughts, surprised at what was happening, although this was not new. She panted as she shook off her father's restricting hands. Sweat was beading on her forehead and her eyelids, and she felt the prickly feeling at the back of her eyelids and that familiar sensation of her eyes almost involuntarily rolling upwards onto her head. It was a kind of peace.

Then her mother, who for a while now had been speaking in a pleading monotone, said something with a sharp buzz, something that she didn't quite catch, and slapped her hard. It was oddly like a cooling wind on her skin, the sting that remained when her mother's hand had left her, and she stopped struggling and hung limp from the side of her seat, her mouth a small, open O, until her father, murmuring reproachfully, settled her properly into the aeroplane seat.

He looked at her, dabbed at her cheek with his handkerchief. "Never mind about the pills for today," he said quietly and put them back into her pillbox.

After a while the minutes sank into each other, and Jess sat still, her eyes following the two air hostesses up and down the aisles. Beside her, she felt her father's heavy, musky-smelling presence, the weight of his arm pressing along hers, heard his shallow breathing as he slept. An air hostess whose name badge said "Karen" smiled quickly at Jessamy, and sleepy as she was, Jess somehow understood that this woman, her jaunty red cap perched atop a black bun of hair, was not smiling at her in particular, but at a child, at the idea of a child. Because she was an air hostess. Smiling at a child. That was what she was supposed to do. Jess gave a drowsy smile in return.

Jess fell asleep slowly, her hand reaching for her dad's. She closed her eyes completely, and the darkness was warm and quiet, like a bubble lifting her higher even than the aeroplane.


From the Hardcover edition.

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Meet the Author

Helen Oyeyemi was born in Nigeria in 1984 and has lived in London from the age of four. She completed The Icarus Girl just before her nineteenth birthday while studying for her A-level exams. She is a member of the class of 2006 at Cambridge University, where she studied social and political sciences. The Icarus Girl is her first novel, and she is at work on her second.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

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