The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi


That Helen Oyeyemi wrote her debut novel aged 18 while studying for her A-Levels is certainly an impressive feat. And, as debuts go, The Icarus Child is by no means a weak one. As this happens to be the third book I’ve read of hers I can see just how much her writing has grown since The Icarus Child. The story’s surreal atmosphere is certainly one that permeates most of her works, but perhaps here the fantastical elements aren’t as mind-boggling as the ones characterising her later books.

The Icarus Child revolves around Jessamy Harrison, who goes by Jess, an eight-year-old child with a white British father and a Nigerian mother living in England. The novel opens with her going on a trip to Nigeria with her parents where she stays in her mother’s family home. Here she comes across a girl called TillyTilly. The two quickly become friends but much about TillyTilly preoccupies Jess. Where are her parents? How old is she?
When she returns home with her family Jess discovers that TillyTilly has followed her there. As they spend more and more time together Jess realizes that TillyTilly is not like other children and that angering or antagonising her might result in disaster. Yet, her friendship with TillyTilly proves detrimental as an increasingly alienated Jess finds herself in trouble at school and at home.
Although the story is narrated through a 3rd pov Oyeyemi succeeds in authentically conveying Jess’ voice. We view her reality/world through her eyes and with her ‘child’ understanding. Things that are obvious to us are a mystery to her (for example when she observes the behaviour/actions of the adults around her). Jess is a sensitive child who often seeks refuge in her own imagination. The adults fail to understand or try to label her ‘difficult’ or ‘different’. Her loneliness is so poignant that I found myself truly invested in her character. TillyTilly is more of a trickster sort of figure, egging Jess to misbehave or let loose. Their dynamic brought to mind my own childhood best friend who was a fun if slightly tyrannical girl who was very much aware of how in awe of her I was (if she told me to jump, i’d jump).
What brings the story down is its meandering pacing and its repetitive scenes. When I thought that the story was reaching a conclusion I was amazed to discover that I was only at the halfway point. Much of the narrative consists in Jess having steadily severe temper tantrums, fighting with other girls at her school, or having to face her understandably exasperated mother. There were also some dream/nightmare sequences that were intentionally confusing that didn’t really add much to the narrative or atmosphere. The character of TillyTilly also proved a bit of a disappointment as she says the same ‘creepy’ things over and over again. The prose too was at times a tad jejune. Anyhow, the latter half of the novel was a bit of a chore to get trough. I found myself skim-reading hoping that the ending would be worth it but was let down by a frankly anticlimactic conclusion.

All in all, I would recommend this to fans of this author. While the story and writing aren’t quite as polished as her more recent releases, and on the whole, the novel isn’t as vivacious or as humorous as her usual stuff, The Icarus Child does introduce us to a compelling protagonist.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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