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The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

The Icarus Girl (2005)

by Helen Oyeyemi

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Jessamy Wuraola Harrison is eight, the child of a Nigerian immigrant author, Sarah, and an English accountant father, Daniel. Jess is precocious, intensely verbal and disarmingly sensitive. She is awash with feelings and emotions that she doesn’t understand or even accept. And she can’t even put into words the depths of her fears. So when, while on a visit to her Nigerian grandfather’s compound, she meets a little girl who seems to just ‘get’ her, Jess is understandably delighted and a bit in awe. Moreover, Titiola, who Jess calls TillyTilly, appears to have remarkable powers. TillyTilly can open locked doors, float in the air, appear at an instant and is willing to put her powers to use at Jessy’s behest (even if Jessy doesn’t say she wants this) in order for Jess’s enemies to be ‘got’. When TillyTilly shows up in London after Jess’s Nigerian summer holiday, Jess is at first over the moon. But soon she is a bit frightened at what TillyTilly is capable of. And soon enough, terrified.

Bracketed by sections set in Nigeria, the lengthy middle section of this intriguing novel takes place in London. We follow Jess through her unhappy school year, her tantrums and friendships, and her numerous ‘illnesses’. Clearly something is wrong with Jess, but her parents are at a loss as to what it might be. And while light begins to shine on various areas of her life, the source of Jess’s internal strife remains obscure. This might be an account of childhood mental illness. Or it might be an intrusion into the real world by the not entirely real. Or, it might be ancient Nigerian spirits wreaking havoc.

This is Helen Oyeyemi’s first novel, which was written when she was a teenager. As such, it displays remarkable agility and imaginative power. It may also suffer from a certain degree of exuberance and meandering (in the middle section). But if you set aside the precociousness of the writing, you’ll still be left with a remarkable tale of cross-cultural conflicts and anxieties, and a sensitive treatment of the switchback emotional confusions of childhood. In the end, the reader is left bemused, perhaps, and possibly a bit anxious. But not disappointed. Oyeyemi’s career will be a pleasure to watch develop. Gently recommended. ( )
1 vote RandyMetcalfe | Aug 10, 2015 |
Lovely, creepy ghost story eight-year-old Jess finds herself in when she meets a strange girl while visiting her grandparents and extended family in Nigeria. It turns out that the strange friend she makes also follows her back home, and she finds out more about herself and her friend back in England.

I love Jess, who is one of the best-written small children that I've encountered. She is stubborn, likeable, and complex. I read this more or less in one sitting and found it very worthwhile. I can imagine that it draws heavily on Yoruba traditions, especially those around twins, which, being completely ignorant of them myself, I sadly didn't recognise. ( )
  Mothwing | Feb 15, 2015 |
The Icarus Girl is a strange story about a lonely eight-year-old girl named Jessamy (Jess) who acquires an imaginary friend/double/doppelganger/ghost twin/personal demon/evil spirit she calls TillyTilly. Like most such beings, TillyTilly can be a good companion when she wants to be, but, more often than not, she is jealous and destructive. Lots of mysterious things happen and there is always plenty of screaming when TillyTilly's around. Only Jess can see TillyTilly, and the girl's British father and Nigerian mother believe that Jess does all the bad things she blames on her invisible friend, such as smashing her mother's computer and pushing another girl down the stairs.

I have mixed feelings about this novel, which according to the jacket copy "draws on Nigerian mythology to present a strikingly original variation on a classic literary theme, the existence of 'doubles', both real and spiritual, who play havoc with our perceptions and our lives." I feel sorry for young Jess. TillyTilly is an impossible burden to bear, and Jess's distracted parents are clueless about their daughter's anguish. The writing is generally good, and I particularly liked the descriptions of Jess's mother's family's everyday life in Nigeria (where soft drinks are called "minerals" and a delicacy called "puff-puff" is considered a real treat), but the scenes involving TillyTilly are over-the-top. Despite its literary aspirations, The Icarus Girl is essentially a rewrite of "Living Doll," the Twilight Zone episode in which a character played by Telly Savalas is tormented by his stepdaughter's doll/doppelganger "Talky Tina".

A final note: although the title "The Icarus Girl" implies a story of overreaching ambition and failure, these themes are not present in the book. There are no references to Greek mythology that I could find, either.

I chose this book because I liked the cover, which depicts a young, resolute girl carrying feathered wings. However, unless I'm missing something, the cover, like the title, has nothing to do with the book's content. ( )
  akblanchard | Jan 30, 2015 |
I am not sure what it was about this book that didn't engage me. I have to admire the fact that it was written when the author was in her last year at secondary school. And there is some very good writing in this novel. But somehow the book just misses the mark.

The premise is interesting, if familiar, and suited to magic realism. A highly sensitive and imaginative child divided between cultures (the Nigerian of her mother and white British of her father) goes visit her grandfather in Nigeria where she meets TillyTilly who may or may not be a figment of her imagination, who may or may not be a ghost or spirit of her dead twin. But the book's ending comes in a rush and doesn't resolve matters. It leaves you in mid-air. I have no problem with ambiguity, I wouldn't like magic realism if I had, but this ending did not work. I think that as a white Brit I probably needed more clarity about the Nigerian folk beliefs that lie behind the story.

The book is written very much from the point of view of Jess, although on a few occasions the viewpoint slips, for example becoming that of Jess' friend Shivs, before flicking back to Jess once more. Whilst having a single person point of view can strengthen a book and the reader's empathy with the main character, it can also cause problems. As Jess is alienated from her friends, teachers and parents, so I found my understanding of them tended to be limited and two dimensional. The other problem was that I lost empathy for Jess, who came over as a hysterical and possibly manipulative little girl.

I realize this review has been pretty negative so far but the book does have a lot going for it, including some lovely writing. The concept is ambitious and the subject matter - sisters, friends (imaginary and otherwise), twins, alienation and dual nationality - is promising (maybe the writer was trying to do too much as is so often the case with a first book) and overall I would give the book three stars, were this a blog that graded books. It's just that I have read some incredible books as part of this challenge and I would recommend you read them first. ( )
  ZEBrooks | Aug 22, 2013 |
And when he'd gone, the ibeji statue
(dull unbelieved-in wood)
guarded the corner for the little twin who needed its help
needed the forgiveness it brought
needed to win
more than ever.

This is the story of 8-year-old Jessamy Harrison, the troubled daughter of a Nigerian mother and an English father, and what happens when they go to Nigeria on holiday for the first time, to stay with her mother's family. I loved this wonderfully poetic book, and can't believe that the author wrote it while she was still at school. ( )
  isabelx | Mar 16, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 20 (next | show all)
''The Icarus Girl'' explores the melding of cultures and the dream time of childhood, as well as the power of ancient lore to tint the everyday experiences of a susceptible little girl's seemingly protected life. Deserving of all its praise, this is a masterly first novel -- and a nightmarish story that will haunt Oyeyemi's readers for months to come.
As Tilly's visits become more insinuating and her pranks more threatening, the mystery and suspense of the story grow. But as Oyeyemi toys with our perceptions, she also strains credulity and ''The Icarus Girl" gets a bit far-fetched and tedious after a while. It's a beautifully written and hauntingly memorable debut novel that gets mired in mysticism.
added by PhoenixFalls | editThe Boston Globe (Jun 20, 2005)
When older writers create child narrators, they often either romanticize childhood as a time when everything seemed possible, or cast it in an obscuring shadow -- "kids can be so cruel to each other" -- from the safety of middle age. But Oyemi writes about childhood as if she were not inventing but truly remembering it, not through the distancing lens of time, but as scary and magical as it really was.
How does Oyeyemi the wunderkind measure up to Oyeyemi the novelist? The answer is fitfully and somewhat frustratingly, in a book where potential is more in evidence than execution and where interesting themes never quite overcome rough, awkward prose.
It turns out that she herself is the heroine of an unalterable hurt narrative, her tale of herself and her imaginary friend, which twists into a new version of the doppelgänger myth, the myth of the fetch, the fateful twin. It's a story with an eye for the baroque state that childhood can be and on the damage that cultural fracture inflicts on everybody, no matter how young or old.
added by PhoenixFalls | editThe Guardian, Ali Smith (Jan 21, 2005)
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Recordless Company...

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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 140007875X, Paperback)

Jessamy “Jess” Harrison, age eight, is the child of an English father and a Nigerian mother. Possessed of an extraordinary imagination, she has a hard time fitting in at school. It is only when she visits Nigeria for the first time that she makes a friend who understands her: a ragged little girl named TillyTilly. But soon TillyTilly’s visits become more disturbing, until Jess realizes she doesn’t actually know who her friend is at all. Drawing on Nigerian mythology, Helen Oyeyemi presents a striking variation on the classic literary theme of doubles — both real and spiritual — in this lyrical and bold debut.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:57 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Jessamy "Jess" Harrison, age eight, is the child of an English father and a Nigerian mother. Possessed of an extraordinary imagination, she has a hard time fitting in at school. It is only when she visits Nigeria for the first time that she makes a friend who understands her: a ragged little girl named TillyTilly. But soon TillyTilly's visits become more disturbing, until Jess realizes she doesn't actually know who her friend is at all. Drawing on Nigerian mythology, Helen Oyeyemi presents a striking variation on the classic literary theme of doubles -- both real and spiritual -- in this lyrical and bold debut.… (more)

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