Most writers would give everything they own to have just one masterpiece to their name. British author Helen Oyeyemi is barely 31, and she already has at least three of them. That includes her last two novels, Mr. Fox and Boy, Snow, Bird, both of which received extensive critical acclaim in the U.S. and around the world.
It also includes her latest book, the short story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. The book contains the same sly humor, gorgeous writing and magical characters as her previous efforts. It is, in a word, flawless.
The nine stories in the book are mostly linked — characters in early stories show up in later ones, to wonderful effect. And the stories are all joined thematically; each one has a lock or key as a significant plot point. The result is that the book feels like a novel, but one that moves freely through time and geography.
The collection opens with "Books and Roses," a remarkable love story about Montserrat, a foundling girl left in a Catalonia chapel with a key hanging around her neck. She grows up and finds work in a laundry, where she encounters Señora Lucy, a painter who also wears a key. Montserrat eventually discovers that she and Lucy are linked when she finds the lock that fits her key. Her reaction is bittersweet: "She'd carried the key to this place for so long and now that she was there she didn't know where she was."
In "'Sorry' Doesn't Sweeten Her Tea" (Oyeyemi clearly has a gift for great titles), sisters Day and Aisha, who are being raised by their father and his boyfriend, deal with the news that their favorite singer has been accused of savagely beating a woman. Day returns later in the funny, deeply sweet "A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society," as a member of the titular club, formed at Cambridge University as an answer to an all-male student association.
Aisha, as well as some other characters from previous stories, is featured in "Freddy Barrandov Checks ... In?", about a young man being pressured to work in the hotel that employs his parents. Freddy is resistant to the idea: "She wants to see good hearts and good brains put to proper use, but I'm not convinced that everybody ought to live like that, or even that everybody can."
Oyeyemi seems to be incapable of writing anything that's not wholly original. "Is Your Blood As Red As This?" follows the lives of students at a bizarre puppetry school; one character is a ghost, and another, Rowan, is a "wooden devil" in genderless human form. "No matter how soft his skin appears to be he is entirely wooden, and it is not known exactly what animates him — no clock ticks in his chest," Oyeyemi writes. "His fellow students already had all those confusing hormone surges to deal with. So most of them stayed away, though I'm sure they all dreamed of him, her, hir, zir, a body with a tantalizing abundance of contours, this Rowan who is everything but mostly tree."
It's one thing to write so beautifully about youth and desire; it's another thing entirely to do it in such a vividly imagined, unique setting. Oyeyemi manages to make the story both realistic and fantastical, and the characters are rendered with grace and compassion.
You could say the same thing for every story in What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, from the subtle "Presence" to the chilling "If a Book Is Locked There's Probably a Good Reason for That Don't You Think." And even in the darkest moments of the book, Oyeyemi never loses her sense of humor — as one character notes, "Sometimes I dream I'm falling, and it's not so much frightening as it is tedious, just falling and falling until I'm sick of it, but then a noose stops me short and I think, well, at least I'm not falling anymore."
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a lot of things: dreamy, spellbinding, and unlike just about anything you can imagine. It's a book that resists comparisons; Oyeyemi's talent is as unique as it is formidable. It's another masterpiece from an author who seems incapable of writing anything that's less than brilliant.