Rae Nudson | Longreads | March 2019 | 12 minutes (3,277 words)
In Helen Oyeyemi’s books, reality can twist and bend until the distinction between what’s fantasy and what’s real disappears entirely. In previous novels, Oyeyemi takes familiar tales, like Bluebeard’s unlucky wives and Snow White’s unlucky youth, and breaks the well-known stories, putting them back together in new ways that jump through time and space. The result is always something weird, dark, and unfailingly interesting. Her latest book, Gingerbread, uses a well-known symbol from fairy tales, the eponymous dessert, rather than a tale itself to spark the story, one in which children take on adult responsibilities and come to experience the effects of work, capitalism, and the complexities of family.
Gingerbread is narrated with the help of a Greek chorus of dolls who come to life to hear the story that the gingerbread-maker Harriet is telling to her daughter Perdita about where Harriet came from — a place called Druhástrana that may or may not exist at all. While evidence of Druhástrana’s existence is scarce (it’s name translates to “the other side” in Czech), Harriet’s memories of growing up there are vivid.
It is during her childhood in Druhástrana that Harriet learns how to make gingerbread, a treat that provides sustenance to her family when times are hard and eventually provides a path to leaving Druhástrana behind — Harriet makes friends with a changeling named Gretel and moves to the city to work in a gingerbread factory, sending her wages home to her family. As she grows up, Harriet learns more about what’s true and what’s false and what matters in life. But one thing Harriet remains sure of is the quality of her gingerbread. She knows it’s good, and she knows that she can add value to the world through the treat she bakes. Read more…