Jessamy “Jess” Harrison is eight years old. Sensitive, whimsical, possessed of an extraordinary and powerful imagination, she spends hours writing haiku, reading Shakespeare, or simply hiding in the dark warmth of the airing cupboard. As the child of an English father and a Nigerian mother, Jess just can’t shake off the feeling of being alone wherever she goes, and the other kids in her class are wary of her tendency to succumb to terrified fits of screaming. Believing that a change from her English environment might be the perfect antidote to Jess’s alarming mood swings, her parents whisk her off to Nigeria for the first time where she meets her mother’s family—including her formidable grandfather.
Jess’s adjustment to Nigeria is only beginning when she encounters Titiola, or TillyTilly, a ragged little girl her own age. To Jess, it seems that, at last, she has found someone who will understand her. But gradually, TillyTilly’s visits become more disturbing, making Jess start to realize that she doesn’t know who TillyTilly is at all.
Lyrical, haunting, and compelling, The Icarus Girl draws on Nigerian mythology to present a strikingly original variation on a classic literary theme: the existence of “doubles,” both real and spiritual, who play havoc with our perceptions and our lives. A story of twins and ghosts, of a little girl growing up between cultures and colors, this book heralds the arrival of a remarkable new talent.
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About the Author
Helen Oyeyemi is the author of five novels, most recently Boy, Snow, Bird, which was a finalist for the 2014 Los Angeles Times Book Prize; and the highly acclaimed What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. She received a 2010 Somerset Maugham Award and a 2012 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. In 2013, she was named one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists.
Read an Excerpt
The Icarus Girl
By Helen Oyeyemi
Random HouseHelen Oyeyemi
All right reserved.
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.
"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?"
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.
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?"
"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.
Excerpted from The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
Deftly blending the motifs of African folklore with an original new voice, Nigerian born Helen Oyeyemi tells a haunting story of twins and ghosts, of a little girl growing up between cultures and colors, to capture the mysterious power of myth to transform reality.
Powerfully imaginative and compelling, The Icarus Girl is perfect for you next reading group choice. Here are some questions to enhance your discussions:
1. Jessamy Harrison has a Nigerian mother and an English father. How important is Jess’s mixed race? How important are these two very different cultures to her?
2. What is the significance of the “long-armed woman” who appears in Jess’s dreams? What does she mean when she says “We are the same”?
3. Jess readily accepts TillyTilly’s ability to alter Jess’s reality. Is TillyTilly a ghost, a demon, Jess’s alter ego as Dr. McKenzie suggests, or something else?
4. How successful is Helen Oyeyemi at capturing the voice, thoughts and fears of a troubled eight-year-old?
5. Jess’s grandfather tells her “Two hungry people should never make friends.” What does he mean? How important is Jess’s grandfather to her?
6. The ibeji statue’s “aid” of Jess in the Bush does not constitute a victory for Jess and Fern. What do you think happens at the end of the novel?
(Questions and content courtesy of Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I loved The Icarus Girl. It was one of those books that you can't put down, and end up reading in two days and then still keep thinking about the main character (Jess) long after you've finished. It was scary at parts. It kept up a pace that made it a real page turner. I liked the way the author wrote from the perspective of an 8 year old girl with such realism and honesty. It reminds you of how hard it is to be a child and an outsider. I'd recommend this book to anyone who loves a fast read.
The Icarus Girl was very different from anything I've ever read. The writing style is very unique, the plot thickens/evolves with every turn of the page, and emotion is almost overbearing at times, which are all things that make it great! It's a story that surpasses todays latest suspense films. I highly recommend it (in fact I'm going to tell a friend about it after I finish writing this). Although I will admit, I could understand why some people would be disappointed with the ending, but I say the events leading to the end are enough to make it a very enjoyable read. Everyone should turn of their televisions, refrain from going to movie theaters, put their other books back on the shelf, and read The Icarus Girl! (If I could, I'd actually give it 4 1/2 stars!)
I loved The Icarus Girl. It was one of those books you can't put down except when it would get so frighteneing that I had to stop so i would be able to get to sleep. I would reccomend this book to anyone i think could comprehend it! I enjoyed it and wished it wouldn't end.
I enjoyed this book from cover to cover, though it started a little slow. Oyeyemi's style of writing is different from many other works I have read from young authors. It is hard to decided how you feel about the relationship between Jessamy and Titiola. On one hand you are excited that the intravert, Jess, has found an outlet for herself to be happy in some since, until you realize that Titiola is the reason for her 'insanity.' I loved it and I am waiting on the next one from this very talented writer.
I picked up this book based on the review in the NY Times. And I supposed I was expecting something completely transforming and astonishing from this highly praised young writer. So I was a little disappointed when the story ended without a solid picture of what happened to the main character, Jess. I understand that much of the plot was based on mystical and internal demons, but the fate of a few of the characters was left so open and unclear, that you never quite understood what was real or imagined. Characters just had things happen to them without any follow-up (a teacher 'goes away', her fate never explored - a friend ends up in the hospital...does she recover? is she back to normal? no answers there, either) or in the case of Jess's father, his 'recovery' after being touched by the menacing presence in the book, Tilly, comes right out of nowhere. One day, everything is just better. I think in the effort to keep the events in the book on a surreal plain, the story becomes just a little too weak by the end of the book, leaving you with something that's not quite fulfilling. It feels closer to an epic poem in which explanations and reasons are given at the writer¿s leisure and are not required.
Helen Oyeyemi is a gifted writer who is then a gift to her readers. This novel is engrossing on many levels . If you didn't like it , you didn't understand what the author was trying to impart .
This book is terrible!!! I had to read this because I am in a book club and it was stupid. Just as the author has you drawn in on a topic she flips to another random one that has no meaning. It doesn't develop the characters and is just rambling. Just because the main character has a split personality doesn't mean the book has that. The writing is very choppy and doesn't have flowing paragraphs.It draws you out of the story.
Is not here
"Snow...whats wrong?" He walked up to his mate.
This story is basically about a girl who befriends a ghost. Tilly Tilly says their twins, but really she is a make- believe character. I liked reading this book.