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Helen Oyeyemi writes like a feral fairy godmother. Her new book Gingerbread is true to form.

In Gingerbread, Helen Oyeyemi’s language shines so bright it overshadows her characters.

Author Helen Oyeyemi, left, and the cover of her book “Gingerbread.” Author photo courtesy Manchul Kim. Book cover courtesy Riverhead Books.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Trying to describe the plot of Gingerbread, the latest novel from Helen Oyeyemi, is a fool’s errand. That’s because Oyeyemi’s books are rarely plot-driven: If anything is powering them forward, it’s the imagery. Her books are filled with sentences of such precise and evocative language that reading them feels like being pricked by a thorny rose from a fairy tale.

Here’s a description in Gingerbread of the titular sweet: “It’s like noshing on the actual and anatomical heart of somebody who scarred your beloved and thought they’d get away with it. … That heart, ground to ash and shot through with darts of heat, salt, spice, and sulfurous syrup, as if honey was measured out, set ablaze, and trickled through the dough along with the liquified spoon.”

The true appeal of Gingerbread is in such eye-searing descriptions — of pastry turned blazing hot with vengeance and murder, so hot that it melts the spoon used to mix it and would, one has to imagine, ecstatically incinerate the tongue of the person who ate it. To appreciate it is to read it more for those descriptions, for Oyeyemi’s shivery imagery and turns of phrase, than to find out what happens next. What happens next is beside the point.

But in brief: Our chief gingerbread maker is Harriet Lee. She learned to make gingerbread from her mother, Margot, and bakes it over and over again for her daughter, Perdita, who longs obsessively for it even after she’s diagnosed with celiac disease. (“Perdita kept asking for gingerbread,” Oyeyemi writes in ominous italics. “She, Harriet, kept making more.”)

The three Lees all currently live in London, but Harriet and Margot were born in the land of Druhástrana (“the other side” in Slovak, and also the name of a Slovak rap duo), which Harriet is miffed to see described on Wikipedia as “an alleged nation state of indeterminable geographic location.” Most of Gingerbread’s middle section is devoted to Harriet telling Perdita the story of her childhood in Druhástrana, and how she came to leave it.

Harriet’s story involves gingerbread, and also gingerbread houses, fragmented families, a little girl named Gretel, and creepy Hansel dolls. But although Oyeyemi’s last few books have taken the form of elaborate, postmodern, fragmented fairy tale retellings, Gingerbread is not, per Oyeyemi, a retelling of Hansel and Gretel. “This one’s about gingerbread,” she says.

And gingerbread in this book is not, the narrator informs us sternly, “comfort food.” It does have nostalgic properties — those who eat it return “to a certain moment in their lives, a time before right and wrong” — but nostalgia here is not inherently wholesome.

Because of her skill at making gingerbread, teenage Harriet is forced to hawk it in an eerie workhouse that seems to be part factory, part child brothel. “Yes, we had fun, we are bona fide children and we think you’re great, please come again,” Harriet and her peers are instructed to say after frolicking around and flashing their underwear at nostalgic, gingerbread-craving grown-ups.

Gingerbread is not Helen Oyeyemi’s best book. But it’s still pretty great.

Following along with all of this as a reader involves entering a dream-like state and accepting without comment all of the odd things that are happening around you. Dolls start to talk, and complain bitterly at the idea that they might be considered fictional; a child climbs into a well and emerges a changeling, with two pupils in each eye; a house rearranges its rooms at will, so that whenever you go through a door you can never be entirely certain which room you’re about to walk into.

This is the kind of atmosphere at which Oyeyemi excels, in which marvelous things happen with deadpan matter-of-factness and the reader is pulled along in their wake. The best way to experience it is not to try to make sense of any of it, but to just let it draw you inexorably along to its final, spine-tingling resolution.

Gingerbread embraces that signature Oyeyemi weirdness and blasé disregard for plot — but it also seems to extend that disregard further than Oyeyemi has before. Her previous books did not particularly care about plot, but they did care about their characters. Reading Boy, Snow, Bird, it was possibly to fall in love with Boy, Oyeyemi’s tragic, striving, wicked stepmother. It is much harder to fall in love with Harriet or Perdita or Margot, who are held at a certain distance from the reader, more like allegorical stock figures than like living, breathing people.

It is as if the screen of Oyeyemi’s language has become so elaborate that it is difficult to reach past it and connect to the living hearts of her characters. And as a result, this book can sometimes feel a little dry, like gingerbread that’s been just slightly overbaked.

But if a book is going to propel itself solely on language and atmosphere, then it should aspire to be as good at even one of those elements as Gingerbread is at both. No matter what happens in the plot, every sentence is perfectly balanced and evocative and rich with meaning. Reading just one feels like taking a bite of Harriet’s vicious, murderous gingerbread, and feeling it blaze furiously away inside of you.