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Nigerian-British Author Helen Oyeyemi Leaves Us Spellbound and Begging for More

One of the most talented writers of her generation, Oyeyemi surprises us with a stellar collection of stories.

Over a decade ago, at just 20, Helen Oyeyemi made her debut as a novelist with The Icarus Girl (Nan A Talese/Doubleday).

Praise for this gutsy story of redemption and revenge was near unanimous amonng critics. I recall being entraced by this eerie tale of twins, so when I had an opportunity to meet the author at a luncheon, upon my arrival I instantly sought her out. I had to ask this young woman how it was that she was able to incorporate the real-life yarn about the Gibbons sisters—Black British twins, wise beyond their years—who made a pact to stop speaking and soon after settled into committing arson.

So close was their bond that they left psychiatrists puzzled. When I quizzed Oyeyemi about her first book, she said, “No, I never heard of them. I used my imagination.” And what an imagination.

Since that time, the Nigerian-born, London- raised scribe has put out a dizzying array of novels—from White Is for Witching (2009) to Mr. Fox (2011)—that dazzled the literati and bewitched readers. In 2014 she delivered Boy, Snow, Bird (Riverhead), an unequivocal masterpiece that upended the Snow White fairy tale. The effort received widespread acclaim, with no less than The New York Times Book Review positing Oyeyemi as a writer fulfilling her promise: “Oyeyemi is from Strange Times. Raised in Britain by Nigerian parents, the five-time novelist isn’t even affiliated with a single home anymore: London, New York, Berlin, Barcelona, Budapest, Prague—who knows where she is doing her thing at any given moment? With Boy, Snow, Bird, a culmination of a young life spent culling dreamscapes, Oyeyemi’s confidence is palpable—it’s clear that this is the book she’s been waiting for.”

Thouh Oyeyemi is slight in appearance and speaks with a soft voice. It is on the page that she roars.

And with What is Not Yours is Not Yours (Riverhead, $27), she proves she is as adept at short stories as she is with a longer narrative form. Each of the book’s nine tales is centered around a key, both physical and allegorical. As she usually does in her fiction, the storyteller bobs and weaves through time and space, with a mélange of characters who feel real, but actually aren’t, and are real with little feeling. It’s nearly impossible to select a favorite in this standout collection, but I was drawn to “A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society,” a meditation on sisterhood, beauty, inclusion and exclusion, and “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think,” which focuses on a diary that holds more than secrets.

The one warning after reading this superior offering? Oyeyemi leaves us spellbound and begging for more of her ingenious, and utterly addictive, prose.