Written by: Helen Oyeyemi
Read by: Helen Oyeyemi
7 Hours and 29 Minutes
PRHA | Imprint: Penguin Audio
Genre: Fiction – Literary
Release Date: March 05, 2019
I voluntarily reviewed an advance reader’s copy of this book. No remuneration was exchanged and all opinions presented herein are my own except as noted.
The prize-winning, bestselling author of Boy, Snow, Bird and What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours returns with a bewitching and imaginative novel.
Influenced by the mysterious place gingerbread holds in classic children’s stories, beloved novelist Helen Oyeyemi invites readers into a delightful tale of a surprising family legacy, in which the inheritance is a recipe.
Perdita Lee may appear to be your average British schoolgirl; Harriet Lee may seem just a working mother trying to penetrate the school social hierarchy; but there are signs that they might not be as normal as they think they are. For one thing, they share a gold-painted, seventh-floor walk-up apartment with some surprisingly verbal vegetation. And then there’s the gingerbread they make. Londoners may find themselves able to take or leave it, but it’s very popular in Druhástrana, the far-away (or, according to many sources, non-existent) land of Harriet Lee’s early youth. The world’s truest lover of the Lee family gingerbread, however, is Harriet’s charismatic childhood friend Gretel Kercheval —a figure who seems to have had a hand in everything (good or bad) that has happened to Harriet since they met.
Decades later, when teenaged Perdita sets out to find her mother’s long-lost friend, it prompts a new telling of Harriet’s story. As the book follows the Lees through encounters with jealousy, ambition, family grudges, work, wealth, and real estate, gingerbread seems to be the one thing that reliably holds a constant value. Endlessly surprising and satisfying, written with Helen Oyeyemi’s inimitable style and imagination, it is a true feast for the reader.
I had difficulty understanding this book’s world: it’s mythology. It does offer up gorgeous prose but I just didn’t understand the world-building. One character is like a stand-in from this other world who seems to fulfill the same purpose as a changeling, but not just for children. I felt almost as if I were missing a large swath of story, or had not been privy to a key explaining the tale. The book is narrated by the author who has a lovely voice and accent. Her breadth in giving voice to the characters is not so large , but she knows what emotions she wants each character to have, and she knows the rhythm of her own writing so it feels right.
The audio book’s director/producer, Sarah Jaffee wrote a blog post, Producer Travel Diary: Gingerbread in Prague, that I feel says a lot about the book very succinctly
It’s an exciting novel: a matryoshka doll of a book about mothers and daughters, about escapes and spells cast and finding one’s way home, with stories wrapped in stories wrapped in other stories; a meditation on storytelling itself. Like all of Helen’s writing, Gingerbread blends an otherworldly edge of magic and myth and fable and fairytale with the groundedness of family, of social mores and daily life, of fractured truths and incidental wickedness, commonplace fate and the everyday unreliable. I don’t always think authors are the right choice to narrate works of fiction, but with Helen’s gorgeous British accent and keen sense of her own pacing, I happily made an exception when I learned she wanted to narrate Gingerbread herself. https://www.penguinrandomhouseaudio.com/blog/gingerbread-in-prague-a-producers-diary/
So, I am perhaps copping out for letting this very savvy producer and director speak for the book. But, while I found the book a compelling listen, ad though I listened to much of it twice, the various threads of the story never came together for me. It was fairy tale, mixed up with a more realistic world with bits and pieces of magic. There’s a Greek Chorus of sentient dolls, a grandmother who is some sort of intuitive decorator, a “third-world” vibe in one land where young people are exploited for the other land’s wealthy, and the psychotropic gingerbread will probably leave me checking the source of my GF gingerbread forever. But all these pieces of poetic prose are loosely knit.
It is definitely literary fiction which doesn’t always work for my non-poetic soul,, and it’s definitely odd, but still a lovely listen.