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lauantai 26. marraskuuta 2011

Vivid 'Icarus' charts a search for self

Vivid 'Icarus' charts a search for self
June 20, 2005|Globe Correspondent

Helen Oyeyemi's remarkable first novel, ''The Icarus Girl," was
written when the author was only 18 years old and should have been
studying for her A-level exams in England. It reflects the Nigerian-
born Oyeyemi's own troubled childhood growing up in Great Britain,
clinically depressed, misunderstood at school, socially outcast, and
suicidal by the age of 15. When a psychiatrist suggested to Oyeyemi's
parents that they take her back to Nigeria for a long holiday (she'd
been back only once since the age of 4), the sojourn proved immensely
therapeutic and restorative. Oyeyemi maintains that it ''fixed her
up," and it helped plant the seeds for the novel that has turned her
into a literary sensation in Britain.

Like Oyeyemi herself, the novel's 8-year-old Jessamy ''Jess" Harrison
is smart and precocious but troubled. Caught between the two worlds of
her British father and her Nigerian mother, she feels pushed and
pulled by the vicissitudes of ordinary life. Easily, almost
pathologically overstimulated and overwhelmed by the sights and sounds
of the everyday world, she is prone to panic attacks, uncontrollable
screaming fits and tantrums, after which she withdraws as a form of
self-protection, trying to understand her puzzling complexity and
muster her resources. ''Once you let people know anything about what
you think, that's it, you're dead. Then they'll be jumping about in
your mind, taking things out, holding them up to the light and killing
them . . . thoughts are supposed to stay and grow in quiet dark
places, like butterflies in cocoons."

Not surprisingly, school is a constant challenge, and friendships are
tricky at best. Finally, Jess's parents, confused and concerned over
their child's tempestuous mood swings, decide to whisk her away from
her routine. Paralleling Oyeyemi's own journey, they take a protracted
visit to Nigeria to acquaint Jess with her mother's family and the
culture of her Nigerian ancestry. The connection with extended family,
especially her grandfather, has a calming, centering effect on Jess,
and she falls in love with the people and the land.

But at this point, with the appearance of a mysterious and mischievous
little girl named Tilly, Oyeyemi's story veers into the realm of magic
realism, drawing strongly on Nigerian mythology. A girl Jess's own
age, Tilly appears out of nowhere one day, seeming to live by herself
in an abandoned building on Tilly's family's estate. She comes and
goes freely, yet is unnoticed by anyone but Jess. Tilly seems both
simple and wise beyond her years, and she becomes Jess's playmate,
protector, and confidante.

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