Helen Oyeyemi’s stories feel both familiar and new, like dark fairy tales you’ve never read before. Every one of them is filled with sentences and imagery that have the same shivery resonance as Cinderella’s glass slipper or Sleeping Beauty’s spindle, but they’re all original to Oyeyemi: a wooden puppet with its strings slashed like a cut throat; a rose that kills its gardener with “a small precise puncture”; a marshland full of drowned corpses that becomes its own city.
Oyeyemi wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, in 2004, when she was just 18 years old. What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, which comes out in paperback March 7, is her first collection of short stories, and it is astonishingly beautiful. Every line shimmers; every image is as precise and well-placed as though it were cut from glass. This book is so exquisite, so perfectly made, that I am actively angry that I did not read it before. Think of all the time I wasted.
The stories of this collection are all loosely connected, with characters weaving in and out of the narrative as it suits them. But what really unites the book is the repeated image of a key in a lock, and the question of whether it is better to unlock a mystery or to leave it unresolved.
In “Books and Roses,” two women are each gifted with a mysterious key that draws them to one another: One key leads to a secret rose garden, the other to a secret library that connects to the garden through a passage. In “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” (take a second to deal with how perfect that title is, it’s fine, I can wait), the narrator stays in a house called The House of Locks, whose doors swing open unless they are firmly locked.
Stubbornly, Oyeyemi’s plots remained locked up as well: They resist resolution, and they keep their secrets to themselves. The lovers may or may not reconcile, the spell may or may not be successful, the arsonist may or may not escape his prison.
But the stories suggest that we may not want to try to unlock their secrets. “Open me carefully,” the epigraph warns. And in the final story, one character forces open a locked diary and regrets it, as the reader always knew she would, because the warning was right there in the title: “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason For That Don’t You Think.”
There is always a good reason for everything Helen Oyeyemi writes, so I will not try to pick the lock on her book and analyze her plot and themes and imagery to death. I will only say that What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a singularly beautiful collection of stories, filled with ideas and images that will linger in your mind for a long time to come.