Michelle Herbert reviews Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi…
Harriet Lee is a maker of gingerbread, the recipe being passed down through her family. The gingerbread is special and has been the family’s salvation in times of need. Harriet’s current family consists of her mother, Margot, and her daughter Perdita. Harriet knows that she is a descendant of an unfindable nation, known as Druhástrana, but as it not on any maps, it gets harder to know this for sure. Unexplainable things happen to these three women although they don’t always react in ways you would expect them to either.
Gingerbread is a whimsical book, and although it has its dark moments, it is a joy to get to know these characters, even as they don’t tell each other the truth about their lives and history. As we follow them through events, we only find out “a truth” after Perdita finds a drastic way to go on a journey to the fabled country of Druhástrana. Harriet’s story feels like a fairy tale, as both here and there are what make her reality.
In the past, Harriet tried to learn everything she can, but in doing so ends up away from her family in the City, acting as the epitome of what a Gingerbread Girl should be. Harriet never complains, she tries to follow Margot’s commandments and be happy with whatever comes her way. It is Harriet’s growing friendship with Gretel Kercheval that really gets Harriet thinking about the world she lives in, and realising that she takes everyone on their word.
It is the Kercheval connection that lands Harriet and Margot into England. While living with the English Kerchevals, Harriet gets the gift of being able to go to school but also lives amidst a family that is at times friendly and at other times supremely hostile. Each member of the Kerchevals is readable to a various degree, and she learns the rules of this household as she has in other situations. What happens here leads into Harriet and Perdita’s own story and whether their mother-daughter relationship will become smoother by finally being able to fill in their shared history.
Gingerbread is ultimately a book filled with ideas that takes you on a magical journey about how far you will go for freedom and family. The land of Druhástrana is also a world where capitalism rules to the nth degree. Where the rich really do get richer, while the poor get poorer and everyone looks to their own advantage. Which means for most there is no way to escape the poverty or this land that cannot be found on maps. The story ends as all good stories do, with you wanting to know what happens in these remarkable characters’ lives.