For many, Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel” is a cautionary tale of greed and a reminder of the danger that comes from trusting strangers and even those closest to us. The story is often remembered for the tantalizing gingerbread house at its center. What functions as a perilous trap in this fairy tale is a source of comfort and a powerful healing tool in Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel “Gingerbread,” a work inspired by the classical children’s tale. The novel carefully traces the lives of three generations of women in the Lee family — 17-year-old daughter Perdita, mother Harriet, and grandmother Margot. Altogether “Gingerbread” is a poignant story of ambition, displacement, and finding one’s way. “Gingerbread” is a story anchored by the strong bonds between its mothers and daughters.
To understand “Gingerbread,” it is important to embrace its ambiguous location. Part of what makes the novel so original is that its setting is unrecognizable. The Lee family comes from the small country Druhástrana, a faraway land that is — according to most people — made up. Both Margot and Harriet grew up here, before escaping to England in Harriet’s teenage years. Perdita feels a forceful desire to connect with her motherland after growing up in present day London. Perdita’s decision to travel to Druhástrana is the catalyst for the major events of the story.
Though a caring and loving mother, Harriet has always maintained her silence about her past and has kept the reasons for returning to their homeland a secret from Perdita. When Perdita realizes that the key to unlocking her own family history is Gretel, a mysterious, old friend of her mother’s, she takes desperate measures to find her, almost at the expense of her own life. This prompts Harriet to relate the events of her and Margot’s life, a narration that spans the majority of the novel.
When the story is placed in contemporary London, there is an acute sense of time and place as Margot is found agonizing over accidentally “superliking” someone on Tinder. But the moment the narration steps foot into Druhástrana, the reader loses all sense of time. With its threshing forks and incestuous marriages between its four farming families, the Druhástrana farmland of Harriet’s youth feels like a village out of the 18th century: “Whether you crossed it on foot or by tractor, wheat was all you saw ahead of you and all you saw behind.” It is a land that was once occupied by giants, but now has expanded to include a modern city.
When Harriet moves to this city to begin a job at a gingerbread making factory, the change in setting is incredibly jarring. With its factorial, cars, and gated-communities, the city feels modern and industrial, which undercuts the pictures painted of the isolated, serf-filled countryside: “Druhástranian gates reward close inspection. Their designs are usually so intricate that they serve as sparkling microcosms of what you’d see if you went in.” Though Oyeyemi’s clear and detailed descriptions carefully envision both worlds, readers who prioritize logic will find the lack of categorization rather frustrating.
Replete with its fictitious land, talking dolls, and enchanted gingerbread, Oyeyemi’s work easily falls into the genre of magical realism. But its class commentary and questions about female agency mean that it is also political. By following Harriet’s move from farm girl to factory worker, the story illustrates the number of difficulties that come from manual labor. At the factory, Harriet and other farm girls become ambassadors for the gingerbread company and are often put on to display the company’s happy workers. It becomes clear that those who make visits to the factory are older businessmen who fetishize these young farm girls, but the practice is allowed to continue due to its success. Oyeyemi’s takedown of dehumanizing factory life is as satisfying as the situation is disturbing, but it shows that she is more than capable of tackling ethical issues in a book that appears to differ greatly from reality.
Of course, it is the narrator’s unique humor which makes the novel digestible. Though it is easy to lose the way in the myriad of settings and narratives within “Gingerbread,” the wry voice of our narrator always returns to secure the plot. Early on, the narrator is quick to note that Hungary is the only country that recognizes Druhástrana’s existence — a hilarious fact that illustrates the novel’s rather absurd sense of humor. The character’s names, like Perdita which means “lost” in Latin, further demonstrate the irony that is deeply and successfully at play throughout the story.
Although gingerbread appears to be an obvious motif, its importance is explored in nuanced ways throughout the novel. It comes from a recipe that all the Lee women pass down and one that always finds success amongst those who taste it. The gingerbreads function as a complicated symbol that morphs across the pages of the book, but for the most part it becomes a vehicle by which these women have their adventures: “It was a square meal and a good night’s sleep and a long, blood-splattered howl at the moon rolled into one.”
While its mixed time period and genre can leave its readers feeling unmoored, “Gingerbread” does an excellent job of worldbuilding and providing sharp social commentary. Its touching portrayal of understanding the meaning of “home” and its surprising answer makes it one of the most significant bildungsroman of this year.
—Staff writer Aline G. Damas can be reached at email@example.com.