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What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours - Helen Oyeyemi

This is a lovely book of short stories: they are often surreal and occasionally baffling, but nonetheless beautiful. Oyeyemi’s free-flowing imagination results in a wholly original collection of stories: one never knows what will happen next, or what byways the story might take us down before the end. Locks and keys are a recurring motif, but not the only commonality – six of the nine stories are set in contemporary England, and characters from earlier stories regularly reappear. This isn’t your grandmother’s England, though; most of the characters are people of color, and same-sex relationships abound (though the collection is not “about” race or sexuality). Anyway, the stories:


“Books and Roses”: This is a beautiful story, a fairy tale of sorts set in early-20th-century Spain. Its ending left me baffled at first (though it made more sense once I realized that Safiye was in Barcelona, the same city where Montse is employed).


“‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea”: After a false start, this turns out to be a story about the fallout from a pop star’s abuse of a prostitute, from the point-of-view of a teenage fan’s stepfather. I appreciated the examination of public reaction to violence against women, but it’s a little heavy-handed. (Or maybe I’m just not used to encountering YouTube comments in literature!)


“Is Your Blood As Red As This?”: An odd but entertaining tale set in a strange school of puppetry (with sentient puppets!). I enjoyed the characters, though the ending was confusing. It is easier to draw conclusions once we encounter some of the characters again in later stories. The POV switch from a human to a puppet halfway through is effective.


“Drownings”: A fairy tale about the fall of a despot; this is an excellent and very imaginative story.


“Presence”: A couple participates in a strange psychological experiment. This story didn’t do much for me: we know it’s an experiment all along, and I felt a more interesting tale could have been told with these characters.


“A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society”: Probably the most grounded of the stories, about a university women’s organization founded to protest the behavior of a men’s club. A fun story with a sweet ending.


“Dornicka and the St. Martin’s Day Goose”: An intriguing retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood,” set in the contemporary Czech Republic. This may be the only story with a straight white protagonist, but Oyeyemi creates a believable character in Dornicka, an older widow from the countryside.


“Freddy Barrandov Checks . . . In?”: A young man gets involved with his family’s creepy hotel. While it’s a well-written story, I was frustrated by the protagonist’s ready caving to requests that he do wrong. The ending is oddly abrupt.


“If a Book Is Locked. . . .”: A strong final entry, in which a mysterious new co-worker shakes up her office. Ordinarily I consider the second person something literary authors need to flush from their systems, but Oyeyemi’s writing is strong enough that this actually works.


Overall, I definitely enjoyed this collection. The writing is accomplished and the stories unique; though their subjects vary, they fit well together. I would read more from this author.