How do you tell a fairy tale to an adult? Children intuit much, but know little. A fairy tale, for them, must take what they feel and bring it close. Uncomfortably, deliciously close. Adults, by contrast, know a great many things, so perhaps for them a fairy tale needs to evoke the known world and distill it back into feeling.
Emily Dickinson — whose emotional fairy tales are laced with menace and decorated by jack-o-lanterned comforts — may have the best advice. “Wonder — is not precisely Knowing/ And not precisely Knowing not,” she wrote . “Whether Adult Delight is Pain/ Or of itself a new misgiving —/ This is the Gnat that mangles men.”
Helen Oyeyemi’s great talent as a storyteller has been to create a kind of novel that beautifully, strangely — sometimes annoyingly — puts its finger on this eerie misgiving. It’s not an accident that many of the characters created by the Nigerian-born British writer are children unbecoming children. Or writers themselves. They spy the shore of sense receding and struggle to accept what it is they’re supposed to know.
But what if you lose something in this purgatory? How do you get it back? Here’s the question at the heart of Oyeyemi’s eighth book, “Gingerbread,” a modern day respinning of “Hansel and Gretel’’ in which instead of two siblings, you have a mother and a daughter — one abducted into a house of cake, the other into early motherhood.
The book unfolds partly in Britain and partly in a fictional country called Druhástrana once inhabited by two generations of the book’s heroines, and visited to near fatal effects by a third. As the story opens, we find comatose teenager Perdita Lee in the hospital, her socially ambitious mother Harriet and grandmother Margot at her bedside.
Perdita had attempted to journey back from London to the family homeland of Druhástrana (“an alleged nation state of indeterminable geographic location’’). Her flux capacitor? The special Lee family gingerbread. This backfires badly, given Perdita’s celiac disease. When she wakes, alive, but unable to speak, Harriet decides to finally tell Perdita (and her dolls, who may or may not be alive) the story of how she escaped and immigrated.
Most of the book unfolds through Harriet’s story. As with Saleem Sinai’s tale to Padma in Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children,” this structure circles periodically back to the present, with all the heckling that orbit allows. “Suppose we’re not even character characters,” one doll protests, as Harriet prepares to launch again into the tale, “but figments of another character’s imagination.”
Soon enough the toys (and jokes) fade, and we’re spirited away to Druhástrana, an agrarian nation where Harriet is born the poor child of the once-wealthy Margot. Margot married badly, and in reduced circumstances the Lees are essentially tenant farmers. Most of the currency Margot earns comes from Harriet’s delivery of her famous gingerbread, which has a curious effect on people. They can’t stop wanting it.
The cake’s biggest fan happens to be the landowner whose draconian lease ensures the Lee’s penury. This landowner has a daughter named Gretel whom Harriet encounters at a spooky well. Harriet endures Gretel’s abrasive teasing, and Gretel is warmed by Harriet’s game manner, and thus — despite their class differences — a friendship is born that carries both into their teens.
“Gingerbread” proceeds through Harriet’s life like a fantasy version of the “Odyssey,’’ each episode erecting new challenges, the reader wondering when “psychic projection’’ Gretel might reappear. We follow Harriet to the nation’s capital, where she works in a gingerbread factory/museum of sorts, acting out wholesomeness while essentially working unpaid. We follow her out of the country in a peculiar escape also facilitated by gingerbread, and into the home of a wealthy benefactor.
As “Gingerbread” proceeds, its fairy-tale texture cools, and the book hardens into the kind of story its elaborate misdirection is meant to cloak: a tale of economic migration. Britain, where Oyeyemi grew up, is obviously in the middle of a spasm of self-vandalism due to anxieties about just what role this tale should play in their nation. This is, in many ways, a book about Brexit and global xenophobia (including our own) in disguise.
Harriet and Margot move to Yorkshire and become the wards of a wealthy eccentric family. Here Oyeyemi writes some of her finest observations, as she describes Harriet’s feelings of confusion when her affair with the family’s heir goes awry and she meets his actual girlfriend, the one he brings home to the family, while meanwhile his grip on Harriet cools, and “he held her as if he was holding a parcel.”
In a world in which we feel based on what we see, novels that address migration need to scramble preconceived emotions to produce something more complicated than drive-by empathy. “Gingerbread” works hard to do this, sometimes too hard: It has four asides and winks to the reader when one would do, and it’s stuffed with literate references, which clog the enchantment machine on which a tale — any tale — ought to rely. It takes 70 pages to take flight. That’s too long.
Oyeyemi can’t help, though, but inscribe intimacy into a tale in ways that defy the difficulty she creates. “Gingerbread” is a novel that recognizes the way relationships can grow out hardship and being stuck in places one wishes to leave. She also understands that to generations in new lands the old ones are so far away as to be theoretical. Page by page, Oyeyemi brings such territory nearer for Perdita, and for us. Uncomfortably close. And then, like all fairy tales, she promises it was just a dream — leaving behind the mist, an aftertaste, a gnat in the throat.
By Helen Oyeyemi
Riverhead, 258 pp., $27
John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s and author of “Maps,’’ a collection of poems.