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The Icarus Girl
ISBN 0385513836
By Helen Oyeyemi
Review by: Michelle Humphrey


In Oyeyemi’s debut novel that melds gothic elements with African mythology, we meet eight-year-old Jess Harrison, a Nigerian-English girl who’s precocious but emotionally unstable. Jess's mother thinks a change of pace could be therapeutic, and brings her daughter to Nigeria, where the child discovers her true name – Wuraola (which means “gold”) – and befriends TillyTilly, a preternaturally powerful spirit, who appears as the physical double of Jess. TillyTilly follows Jess back to England and lets loose as a particularly sinister id, wreaking vengeance on whoever confounds Jess’s happiness (these are the usual suspects: the Mean Girl of the school and a heckling teacher). The course of retribution spirals out of control, until the real motives of the doppelganger becomes achingly clear: TillyTilly wants to inhabit Jess, leaving the soul of our heroine to wander “the bush” – an otherworld wilderness.

As horror, the frightfest never exceeds feverish dreams featuring an archetypal woman with very long arms and a dead baby under the bed. The symbolism intrigues, but it’s too heavy-handed for thrilling and chilling an audience. As a coming-of-age tale, the situation’s more interesting: Jess must face her own complicated dark side while TillyTilly does her bidding, eventually working her evil on Jess’s father who becomes a catatonic presence.

Readers can guess that Sarah, Jess’s mother, fiercely intelligent and fully grasping the nuances of Nigerian myth, would demystify – and conquer – TillyTilly. If Sarah were allowed inside her daughter’s psychic world, she could probably fix everything, and the fact that she’s marginalized emphasizes the point: Jess’s conflict with the spirit-girl is one she must face without her mother. Still, while Sarah sticks to the sidelines, she’s one of the richer characters. Her maternal worry alternates with exasperation. She physically punishes Jess, or stares her down with a resolve that’s disturbing to her daughter. The love / hate between the two is apparent from the start – but before Jess can piece together a relationship with Sarah, she must do battle with her doppelganger, piecing together certain fragments of her inner life.

Jess may not join forces with her mother, but she’s not alone in her quest. The solidarity among young female characters (Jess’s friend Shivs, for one – and other spirit-girls in the bush) enables Jess to confront TillyTilly and claim her true name in a surprising turn of events. It’s in this context that readers will find the enthralling story within The Icarus Girl: a debut that’s not so much horror as it is dark lyricism and, in its better moments, an artful experiment with the mythic.

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