Helen Oyeyemi’s stories are like hedge mazes. As soon as you begin to anticipate a direction, a destination, and an ending, there’s a turn, and another turn, then before you know it, the story is about someone or something else. What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours uses such labyrinthine structures in only the best ways, subverting folk tales, upending traditional narratives, and unfolding backstories as if outside of time.
The tales are mostly set within the same landscape and feature some recurring characters and related events, though they stand up well on their own. They’re not woven together into one large tapestry, like the stories Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno, but rather exist as distinct entities shot through with the same shimmering thread. This is an idealized world, though one much like ours, where diversity is not only common but barely questioned; where comrades take up for one another at the slightest hint of danger; where (and this is the engine of the book’s best wonders) anything and everything can be haunted, possessed, made sentient, or imported from an alternate reality.
This shared setting lends itself to some interesting themes–false and true selves explored through literal and metaphorical puppetry, the planes love can or cannot transcend, the links between voice or sound and memory, and the endless fascination of keys, locks, and what lies behind them. Oyeyemi includes postmodern elements, with one story featuring an annotated email followed by more-or-less traditional structure, but not so much that you’ll need multiple bookmarks or page flags to keep track. She also recalls the lost world of pre-war Europe, but not to the point where this book feels like historical fiction. Best of all, there’s page after page of macabre wit and beautiful, lingering imagery. This is a book where a busking viszla and ironic prison selfies happily co-exist.
Readers who cannot set aside their cynicism or suspend disbelief long enough to believe in concepts like true love or other selves probably won’t enjoy this collection, but those who can will find a group of wonderful, complex stories they’ll want to read again and again. For fans of Oyeyemi’s uncanny motifs and her mashups of the otherwordly and distinctly earthy, this is the must-read short story collection of the spring, if not of the year. If these stories are mazes, they’re ones where readers can be all too happy to find themselves lost.
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi (Riverhead | 9781594634635 | March 8, 2016)