Welcome to our second tiny book review. This month, we’re talking about What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi, a book of short stories that is magical and, sometimes, about magic. You can read reviews of it at the New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, and Publisher’s Weekly. This is Oyeyemi’s sixth book, first book of short stories. She is an often-stunning writer that manages to blend dreamy occurrences with daily reality while reminding us of how temporary the world around us might be.
Andi: “But what he sought was a view from a new window, and that was all he took.”
Beth: “Two things that were not in her favor were her spectacles, which often
led people (including herself) to incorrectly anticipate a sexy
librarian effect. You know… the glasses come off, the hair tumbles
down, and there she is. Nope. She had unreasonably large feet too.”
Andi: This is one of those covers that measures exactly what lies inside the book, even though I’d be hard-pressed to sum up the content of either the cover or the book. I could say the cover has muted yet vivid colors and the image contains puppetry and there’s a magical feeling because of the hands emerging from the fire and I could say that of course this cover means….something very deep and specific.
And I could say of the interior that these stories are both subtle yet outrageous and every image is specially chosen for a specific purpose and there’s a magical feeling to the stories because of puppets and keys and characters willing to subject themselves to coincidence after coincidence and that of course these stories all mean….something very deep and specific.
But I’m not sure what that very deep and specific thing is.
Beth: The American cover features a hand creating a wolf shadow puppet on the wall. The fire element introduces an element of danger, maybe a connection to a tradition of storytelling and myth. The fact that we see the hand implies to me that we’re being shown what’s behind the curtain, her process if you will. The image of the wolf also harkens back to the fairytales that form the foundation for her experimentation.
The British cover is very stark. The image of the rose reminds me of the American version of Atkinson’s Life after Life, but the negative inverse without color.
Andi: Okay, I’ll just say it–I am surprised I didn’t like this book more than I did. I think if I had encountered these stories separately, in different magazines and on different websites, each one a surprise, I would have loved them all dearly. But when taken together over a weekend, they add up to something slightly less than the sum of their parts. I felt as though I was supposed to be learning something, that these stories were intentionally allegorical, and that I was stupid for not being made wise and charmed.
I wish I had treated these stories like a treasure hunt and spent a year or so seeking them out in different publications. I think I would have liked that. I would have given myself the opportunity to look at these stories against the backdrop of my daily life and discovered that in the contrast lies the meaning. I could have read about two people meeting the son they never had as a result of some bizarre experimental treatment that they decide no one else should ever be subjected to in the story “Presence.” And I might have realized that this was a story about missing everything you never managed to be, like how sometimes I miss being a ballerina. I was never a ballerina. I never will be a ballerina. But sometimes I feel nostalgic for being a ballerina. And that’s, maybe, what this story was about. Instead, I read this wonderfully written story and thought to myself, “This is crazy! She sacrificed a two-week vacation for a fortnight of drinking lots of tea by herself and hallucinating?” See? I completely missed the point.
Full disclosure: this happens to me frequently. There will be a book or an author everyone will rave about and I just can’t seem to align myself properly to fully appreciate it or them.
Beth: I listened to Oyeyemi’s novel, Mr Fox, and adored the reader and the multiple layers upon layer of character and reality. Here Oyeyemi’s talents were on display but in a more contained way, each story is its own separate contained unit. Yet the image of keys—which also connects it back to Mr. Fox—ran like a thread through the collection. Yet each time I started a story I was jolted into realization that the world I was going to enter was vastly different from the one I had just left. Each was satisfying but in a unique way.
What this book reminds me of:
Andi: This book reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro, his early books, that I read and loved in college. Though I’d be hard pressed to tell you what any of his early books were about. But I remember the same dreamy-but-honed tone of the books that felt similar and complemented well with long walks across campus and dreary bus rides. I also kept thinking of that story about the boy with a finger shaped like a key–was it by Aimee Bender? One more thing I was reminded of: trying and failing to enjoy the Elena Ferrente novels. Sigh. It’s not them, it’s me. Everyone else likes them, so you probably will too.
Beth: I’m taking part in a short story challenge this year, so this collection fits in nicely with my reading. There seems to be a strong offering of talented authors writing both novels and stories: Rebecca Makkai, Lauren Groff, Ramona Ausubel, Katherine Heiny and Katie Chase just to name a few. I was reminded of Kelly Link’s writing and her willingness to experiment with style, format and voice as I was reading Oyeyemi.
Snack or beverage that pairs best with this book:
Andi: A cold salmon dinner garnished with beaded drops of lemon pulp that gush in perfect proportion to the fish, with a side of dancing mushrooms drizzled with a glinty reduction sauce, and followed by a cloud of spun cream lightly sweetened with memories of being a child dressed in a gauzy curtain performing in the sunlight of your grandfather’s strawberry patch.
Beth: A bowl of indian spiced mixed nuts, dusted with some curry and a little heat would be the perfect nibble when reading these stories. To wash it all down I’d suggest a can of Vernor’s ginger ale. But be careful, the ginger’s quite strong. They don’t sell it in New England, but I have some dear friends who bring me some when they visit relatives in Ohio.
Setting in which this book is best read:
Andi: Well, I’ve covered that a bit. I should have read these stories in doctor’s waiting rooms, on park benches, standing in line at the DMV, and in the few moments before my son’s band concert plays its opening warm-up surge. I should have read these stories on my phone while waiting in the elementary school parking lot for the end-of-day bell to ring. Next time.
Beth: I read some of this on a rainy day curled up with a thin blanket to keep off the chill. Outside the window the world was grey and dreary, inside the scenery kept changing, quite remarkably, from story to story. I read that Oyeyemi is somewhat nomadic. Perhaps her desire to travel makes it possible for the reader to be transported to different worlds through her words.