This month Literally x LWLShelf dug into Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread. We incorrectly assumed the book was holiday-themed, and were pleasantly surprised to discover something very different. Set in a fantastical world, Gingerbread feels like an Alice in Wonderland-like bedtime story. The book centers on Harriet Lee and her teenage daughter Perdita, who live in a seventh floor walk-up in England with their talking dolls. Harriet was born in the secretive and “non-existant” European country of Druhastrana, where her mother taught her to bake gingerbread so delicious and powerful, it’s used as the base of a child-labor industry, a tool for bribery and a lure for new friends.
Harriet meets Gretel (yes, that Gretel) Kercheval as a youngster, and the two become fast friends, which leads to seismic shifts in the trajectory of Harriet’s life. Perdita’s quest to find Gretel leads her toward discovering the Harriet’s long-forgotten extended family, as well as the mysteries of her mother’s gingerbread and her home country. Honestly that’s as much as I can give you in terms of plot, because it’s such a difficult book to describe.
Gingerbread is laced with layer upon layer of symbolism, wrapped in beautiful, lyrical and vivid language, like a cake! The story is often difficult to follow due to shifting timelines. I listened to the audiobook (which I highly recommend - the author reads it herself and her voice is incredible) and if I stopped paying attention for even a second, I was lost. As one of our members, Rachel, put it, “The reader, just like Hansel and Gretel in the original fairy tale, must navigate through a dense tangle to find their way home again.
If you haven’t read along with us, please do give Gingerbread a read. It’s a beautiful book written by a truly gifted writer, Helen Oyeyemi. Oyeyemi has quite a few other books under her belt, many of them award-winning. I’m looking forward to delving more into her imaginative writing!
If you did read the book, I’d love to know your thoughts! We left our discussion with many more questions than answers, and though I think that was the point, I’d love to hear your interpretations!