Alternate Realities

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yoursby Helen Oyeyemi

Riverhead Books. 336p $27

To Montse, the Virgin Mary is not so much the mother of God as she is a type of goddess, one who is sorrowful and carefree all at once. She doesn’t guide or shield people but goes with them and adds her tangible presence when required. She’s more of a sister than a mother.

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It’s possible that Montse feels this way about the Virgin because she was abandoned as an infant and left in a monastery chapel. But readers won’t know for sure because Helen Oyeyemi offers little in the way of motivation for her characters in her latest book of fiction, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours.

A collection of nine interlocking stories, the book reads like a prose poem. It contains stunning figures of speech like “…time was more of a fog that rose inexorably over all their words and deeds so that they were either forgotten or misremembered.” Set in cities like London, Prague and Barcelona, the stories have an allegorical quality and often allude to fairy tales.

Born in Nigeria in 1984 and raised in England, Oyeyemi is the author of five bestselling novels. Something of a child prodigy, she published her first novel, The Icarus Girl, in 2005, to rave reviews. As with this collection of stories, the action in The Icarus Girl moves between the physical world and a menacing spiritual one, with a protagonist befriending what seems to be a ghost. Oyeyemi endows her difficult fiction with a dreamlike (sometimes nightmarish) quality reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges and Harold Pinter. As in a dream, the characters slip into alternate realities, and in the best of Oyeyemi’s writing, those characters take readers along with them.

“Books and Roses,” the most successful story here and one of the most traditional, has an exposition, a somewhat recognizable plot line and a main character capable of eliciting sympathy from readers. It concerns Montse, the foundling who, as a young woman, is trying to find her mother as well as (in a sense) herself. Oyeyemi, who is Roman Catholic, has imbued this story with a spiritual sense. (She has said that she stays with her religion because she is drawn to its mysticism.)

Raised by monks, Montse was found in a basket placed beside the wooden statue of the Black Madonna, also known as the Virgin of Montserrat. There was a note with her as well as a key, which Montse later wore around her neck. Montse, who is black, thinks of herself as the daughter of the Virgin, although she doesn’t seem to notice the implied contradiction in terms. Nor does she notice other ironies that occur in her life.

These ironies are integral to the stories in this collection and drive them. Characters like the Virgin appear. They are not necessarily holy or people with Roman Catholic credentials, but they do have a tangible presence even if they are ghosts, witches, devils or otherwise supernatural beings, and they do come to aid others.

The stories generally begin in medias res with readers wondering about the identity of the characters and the logic of a plot that until the very end seems to make no sense. The world of the stories seems ordinary at first. Someone works in an office and notices a colleague’s diary, or someone house-sits for a neighbor and feeds his tropical fish, or a husband wants to talk to his wife about their son.

Gradually the circumstances turn mysterious, as in the diary that when unlocked has the power to consume its readers; or the house-sitter who notices previously locked doors opened and a spectral woman who may be imagined; or the son who was never born but has a ghostlike presence in the lives of his parents. There seems to be no obvious explanation for the goings-on.

There are puppets who were once human (Pinocchio in reverse), puppeteers who are puppets, puppets who are take-offs on the devil. There is even one named after the rowan tree that was popular in mythology and was believed to protect people from witches. There are witches in the collection—Hecate, for example, punishes a rock star who preys on young women.

There are also many keys. Keys open a library door that holds the secret of one’s identity, and they open the door of a prison cell. They open a wooden chest as well as the door to a fraternity house. And finally, in the last story, a key belonging to somebody’s “dark” grandmother, one who escaped from communist Russia, opens a book that in a sense is this book.

This key, surprisingly enough, is actually a locket holding (even more surprising) a painting of St. John Ogilvie, a Jesuit martyr, and of St. John Nepomuk, also a martyr, supposedly carried by angels to eternal rest on the riverbed where his halo awaited him.

Often worn like a charm on a necklace, the key holds these stories together and, in a sense, opens them out to the next story, while the characters knowingly and unknowingly follow a path determined by the key. When the story ends, good conquers evil—or tries to.

Ultimately, these stories turn on ideas as opposed to character development, and they contain little plot. People act symbolically; things happen; the action moves by metaphor more than anything else. The narrative path is labyrinthine as the plot interweaves myth and fairy tale motifs with contemporary life. Characters send text messages to each other while encountering puppets who bear an uncanny resemblance to the devil. They even encounter a wolf who is not exactly the big bad wolf because he’s not that big. But he talks to someone wearing a red hooded jacket, and he eats people nonetheless.

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