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Postmodern Hansel and Gretel

Cover of Gingerbread: A Novel
A review of Gingerbread: A Novel by Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi's Gingerbread is the story of three women, Margot, Harriet and Perdita Lee, how their lives intertwine with the Kerchevals, a wealthy family of landowners in the fictional country of Druhástrana, and a legacy recipe for gingerbread. It's hard to put into words all of the magic that's present in this novel. I'll tell you one thing: it was impossible for me to read this book without craving gingerbread something fierce. There's something warm and comforting and simultaneously forbidden and sinister about gingerbread. The treat conjures up childhood and holidays and witches and fairy tale abductions. In the case of the Lee's gingerbread, the recipe is also wrapped up in extortion, corruption and ill-health along with love and caring. It's complicated!

The novel spans numerous decades and jumps between modern day England and rural and industrial Druhástrana of an indeterminate era. Teen-age Perdita Lee wants to know more about her family tree and through a series of unfortunate events, the reader is transported to the Druhástrana of her mother Harriet Lee's youth as a "Gingerbread Girl" and her grandmother Margot Lee's past as a wealthy socialite turned impoverished farmer's wife married to a Simple Simon. The common thread between the women is Gretel Kercheval, a childhood friend of Harriet's that's always in the middle of their messes. 

The storybook Druhástrana is hard to pinpoint and that's exactly what makes the plot so intoxicating and dream-like. There are harsh lessons involving literacy and economics and the inhabitants of Druhástrana are wild, almost feral creatures in some ways. The Kerchevals continue to haunt the Lee family and it appears the whole clan is destined for destruction. Seemingly, there's not enough gingerbread in the world to save them. Then, miraculously, the Lee women have a chance to start over and make their way to a more stable environment.

At the heart of Gingerbread is a postmodern fairy tale of family and place filled with enchantment and understanding and more than a little bit of weird thrown in. Be prepared to be charmed, creeped out, and hungry.

April 29, 2019