Cinderella becomes the wicked stepmother
Helen Oyeyemi's novels boost the playful incorporation of myth, folklore and fairy tale, ranging widely over the territories and cultures in which those endlessly recirculating, subtly mutating narratives become embedded.
From the doppelgängers of her debut novel Icarus Girl, written while she was still at school and published in 2005, to the melding of Yoruba and Cuba in The Opposite House, the central ghost story of White is for Witching and the reimagining of the story of Bluebeard in Mr Fox, Oyeyemi has demonstrated that she has both an itinerant fascination with the world's stories and a strong tendency to return to a smaller clutch of suggestive themes.
Her core interest is identity, and the devices, metaphors and images she most frequently deploys – mirrors, doubles, triangles, disappearances – all feed into her determination to explore what happens when we have to operate without a stable sense of ourselves or those around us.
Her fifth novel, and the first since she appeared on Granta's most recent list of best young British novelists, opens with a motherless girl called Boy, a child-woman who, shortly after we meet her, escapes from her violent father.
An inversion is already in place, for Frank Novak is a rat-catcher; but, unlike the Pied Piper of Hamelin, he drives people away, rather than casts a spell over them. Boy jumps on the first bus out of New York and finds herself in the little New England town of Flax Hill.
Boy, with nothing but a bag and an American flag to her name, immediately morphs from the maltreated waif of fairy tale into another familiar character, the solitary drifter of 1950s America – all boarding houses, temporary jobs, lunch counters and double dates.
Earlier, Boy tells us about her white-blonde hair, her black eyes and her high forehead – put it together with her surname and you come up with Vertigo, that terrifying exploration of disguise and duplicity, in which Kim Novak plays twin roles. Like Hitchcock, Oyeyemi is interested not merely in what happens when you attempt to pass for someone else, but also in the porous boundaries between one self and another.
Boy meets Arturo Whitman, a widowed historian turned master jeweller. Although not sure she loves him, she marries him. She cannot become his late wife, the opera singer Julia, but she might be able to be a sort of mother to his daughter, Snow. But that attempt, too, fails when Boy gives birth to another girl, Bird.
The narrative twists sharply and unexpectedly when the colour of Bird's skin reveals not Boy's infidelity to Arturo but that the Whitmans are a light-skinned black family living undeclared among whites, a transition that, for all its momentousness, occurred in a moment of banal bathos when Arturo's father passed unremarked into a golf club. Its ramifications have been rather more serious: a darker sister, Clara, has been sent away.
Almost unnoticed amid the drama of this revelation, Boy – who has been gently transforming from a beaten, motherless, neglected Cinderella into a harder, darker figure far more like Snow White's wicked stepmother – effects a second banishment, sending Snow to join Clara.
As Boy changes, so does the focus of the narrative. We leap from a fairy tale into something far more uncompromisingly concrete, in which phenomena such as mirrors and shadows have different connotations.
When Arturo's mother, Olivia, explains the world that she decided to escape, she describes it in terms of its unreality, its otherness: "All the high-class places we were allowed to go to, they were imitations of the places we were kept out of ... at the candlelit table you'd try and imagine what dinnertime remarks the real people were making ... yes, the real people at the restaurant two blocks away, the white folks we were shadows of, and you'd try to talk about whatever you imagined they were talking about, and your food turned to sawdust in your mouth. What was it like in those other establishments? What was it that was so sacred about them, what was it that our being there would destroy? I had to know. I broke the law because I had to know."
Meanwhile, Snow and Bird grow to early adulthood, aware of one another's existence but kept apart. Like Olivia, with her compulsion to breach segregation, they find themselves determined to cross the threshold.
Letters begin to pass between them, and information accretes even when they use invisible ink. The power of the sisterly bond – not for nothing does Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market crop up – weakens the dominance of the narratives of vanished mothers and abandoned daughters.
In her manipulation of a succession of overlapping triangles of which the book's title is only one, Oyeyemi suggests the possibility of a kind of redemption; that identities eventually settle, configure, cohere and that we all learn to live with the life that we have fashioned for ourselves.
In an intriguing, sinuously attractive book full of jeux d'esprit and lightning skies that often part to reveal pain and turmoil, it is a welcome hint of stability and optimism – if not one that we should trust in entirely. – © Guardian News & Media 2014