The Icarus Girl
Something quite disturbing yet beautiful flows through 20-year-old Helen Oyeyemi’s debut, The Icarus Girl—even though it’s hard to ignore the hype surrounding the Nigerian-born Brit while reading it. She has already been compared to Chinua Achebe, Amos Tutuola, and Ben Okri by the Financial Times. It’s even harder to ignore Oyeyemi’s heartrending similarities to the book’s young, troubled, and confused protagonist, Jessamy Harrison. In countless interviews, Oyeyemi has been very forthcoming about her adolescent awkwardness—which continues even now with a two-book deal—the death of her imaginary friend, Chimmy, her frightening suicide attempt, her fear of everything, and her struggle to live in two worlds: one English, one Nigerian.
Icarus opens with 8-year old Jessamy hiding for hours in the cupboard, opting for reclusion rather than playing with other children. Oyeyemi meticulously and acutely paints Jessamy’s loneliness, her displacement in Britain and Nigeria, and her unnatural fear of the world around her. These feelings are compounded by a family teetering on emotional breakdown: Her Nigerian mother struggles with her own identity crises and eventually admits to fearing her daughter, and Jessamy’s English father comes closer to understanding her but is too weak to take control of the situation.
During a family trip to Nigeria, TillyTilly, possibly a figment of Jessamy’s imagination, is introduced into Jessamy’s increasingly depressing world. TillyTilly is everything that Jessamy is not: outspoken, aggressive, and fearless. Manipulating traditional Nigerian folklore about the supernatural power of twins, Oyeyemi chillingly has TillyTilly prey on Jessamy’s vulnerabilities, disrupting the fragile balance of Jessamy’s life.
Oyeyemi’s third-person narrative provides the emotional distance to endure the story, resulting in a voice that wavers from juvenile naiveté to analytic insight, echoing Jessamy’s preciousness: She’s too smart for her own good and suffers from adolescent gullibility and the yearning for an altered reality. And although The Icarus Girl is an incredibly sad novel, it’s a testament to the cathartic powers of writing. Oyeyemi tackles—and hopefully releases—a wellspring of emotions with a confident voice, dabbling in magical realism and black humor, while avoiding the insecurities and hesitancies of most first-time novelists. The Icarus Girl is a dark entry into the psyche of a fascinating girl that we all know but may ignore.