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Icarus Girl: A Novel
Oyeyemi, Helen; Icarus Girl: A Novel. New York: Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, 2005. $23.95, ISBN 0385513836.

Note: Jessamy "Jess" Harrison is an eight-year-old caught between two different worlds. The daughter of a British father and a Nigerian mother, she has always felt like a misfit. She is smart and precocious, but can't seem to get along in school

Helen Oyeyemi's first novel, The Icarus Girl, is the story of Jessamy, an eight year old biracial child, born of a Yoruba Nigerian mother, and a British father, living in England. At the start of the story, Jess as she is called, is a somewhat retiring child, who likes to play by herself. During a trip to Nigeria, however, Tilly Tilly a kind of ghostly double, injects herself into Jess's life. From then on, Jess is never free of Tilly Tilly and as a result, Jess begins to act in an increasingly erratic and antisocial manner. Concerned, Jess's parents take her to a therapist who makes very little headway. He does determine, though that Tilly Tilly is in some way related in Jess's mind to her twin sister who died in infancy. Most of the novel is an account of Tilly Tilly's involvement with Jess and the impact that this ghostly double has on Jess's life in England.

Oyeyemi does an excellent job of communicating the growing sense of dread and fear that gradually overshadows all of Jess's interactions with Tilly Tilly, so much so that many younger readers may find this story rather disturbing and unnerving. In other children's stories, a child heroine may stumble upon a world of strange occurrences while remaining somewhat detached from the strangeness of this additional environment. In The Icarus Girl, Jess is not simply an external spectator watching bizarre events unfold from the safety of her seat. Rather, she is herself, on stage as it were, unable to separate her everyday reality from Tilly Tilly's increasingly malevolent activities. She cannot walk through a door, jump over a wall, or wake up from sleep and be done with Tilly Tilly. Nor does she have any control over Tilly Tilly's irruptions in her life. There is in the end, no separation between what initially appeared to be an imaginary world and regular life. It is as if Jess is caught in a never-ending nightmare from which she cannot awaken try as she may, and this is perhaps the most unsettling dimension of the story.

Questions of cultural conflict and alienation are at the forefront of this narrative. Jess's mother, Sarah, is a model of cultural confusion. Sent to England by her father to study medicine, that is to acquire the technology of the West, she instead chooses to major in English literature and eventually marries a white Briton. When her daughter however begins to show signs of psychological distress, she arranges a trip to Nigeria for the whole family, and subsequently has an Ibeji doll carved for her daughter. Sarah's father in Nigeria represents another form of cultural confusion. On the one hand, he is an active member of a Baptist church in the city of Ibadan, Nigeria where he resides and offers prayers to Jesus as the solution for every problem. At the same time, and as Jess's behavior becomes ever more unpredictable, he proposes consulting a traditional medicine woman, whom Jess's father, Daniel, describes as a witch doctor.

Jess herself is closer to her sympathetically portrayed British dad than to her Nigerian mother. For reasons that are never fully explained, Jess holds her mother responsible for the death of her twin sister in infancy. What does this all mean? Are we to interpret The Icarus Girl as the author's rejection of the African mother(land) and embrace of the British father? Many troubling signs in the novel would seem to point in this direction. At one point, for example, Jess tells her therapist that she resents her mother's efforts to make her adopt a Nigerian identity. Two trips to Nigeria frame the story and Jesss descent into a permanent state of psychological instability. It is during the first trip that she becomes acquainted with and gradually entrapped in Tilly Tilly's universe of wickedness. Nigeria is hot, uncomfortable and Jess is treated as a white foreigner while there. During the second trip, Jess is involved in a near fatal car accident. In Nigeria, Tilly Tilly is a delightful figure who initially uses her magical powers for Jess's entertainment. Back in England though, Tilly Tilly becomes destructive and racist. One can only conclude that as a biracial and bicultural child growing up in England, Jess's association with Nigeria does her no good.

This novel is a worthy subject of consideration in the more recent controversies about the character and future of the entity that critics once unproblematically described as African literature. In its symbolic and mythological references, this novel by an African-born author invokes African culture, which the story then repudiates as a basis for personal identification. The Icarus Girl is undoubtedly a mature piece of work from a very young author. The blurb notes that Oyeyemi was in high school when she wrote the novel. By the same token, this precocious maturity does in my opinion make this novel unsuitable for adolescents. It is, though, highly recommended for consideration in the lively debates among undergraduates, critics and scholars over the relevance of categories such as African culture, African identity and African literature for diverse communities of Black people in the world today.

Rating: R / A Grade: AD Type: Book

Reviewed by: Moradewun Adejunmobi (madejunmobi@ucdavis.edu), African American and African Studies, University of

Subject: West Africa / Nigeria / England / Racially mixed children / Fiction