The Icarus Girl (Magill's Literary Annual 2006)
The Icarus Girl is a very strange book: an exploration of the clash of two cultures, a study of a child’s psychological disintegration, a horror story, and perhaps more. Although it begins in England, the story shifts to Nigeria where, melded with Yoruba custom and folklore, it quickly slides into a mysterious, supernatural realm that the author, Helen Oyeyemi, admits even she does not fully understand. Inhabiting that realm are two girls, Jessamy Harrison, who is English by birth, and Titiola, whom Jess meets in Nigeria and who follows her home.
At first, it is not clear what is wrong with eight-year-old Jess, although something definitely is, because she is constantly screaming. A solitary child, she has no friends. At home in London, she likes to hide in the linen cupboard on the stair landing. She cannot eat in front of other people or meet their eyes; she writes haiku in the dark, lying on her bedroom floor. At school she has been advanced to Year Five but does not like it. She has terrible spells that may well be panic attacks, but otherwise she appears to be depressed. Because her fellow pupils say she is weird, she desperately wants to return to her own Year Four class, but her proud Nigerian mother, Sarah, objects. Sarah, a successful novelist, seems for the most part unmindful of her daughter’s problems, but Daniel, her mild English father, is more sensitive, and Jess feels closer to him.
On the Harrisons’ flight from London to Ibadan, Nigeria, for their first visit to Sarah’s family, Jess hysterically refuses her antimalarial pills, but once there, she becomes calmer. Nigeria is a different world for both her and her fathera land of sun, heat, and vivid color, sharply contrasting with their accustomed English life. There Jess meets her stately grandfather, Gbenga Oyegbebi, and numerous Nigerian relatives, who live in separate buildings within the walled family compound and speak both English and Yoruba. Gbenga addresses Jess by her Nigerian name, Wuraola, which no one has ever used, adding to her sense of alienation.
One night Jess notices an unidentified light in the compound, in the large, empty house called the Boys’ Quarters, which was once used for servants. The next day, while she explores there, she finds her name traced on a dusty tabletop. An oddly dressed girl appears and, once Jess manages to speak with her, they become friends. The girl is Titiola, but because Jess cannot pronounce her name correctly, she calls her TillyTilly. Mischievous TillyTilly, who seems somehow out of proportion, “too tall and yet too . . . small at the same time,” encourages Jess to enter her grandfather’s forbidden study at night. Afterward, TillyTilly gives Jess a giftSarah’s childhood copy of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868). On Sunday she invites Jess to a deserted amusement park, where the gate mysteriously unlocks and all the rides operate by themselves. Fascinated, Jess decides to be like TillyTilly and learn to do the same things she can do.
Just before she leaves Nigeria, Jess returns to the Boys’ Quarters in search of TillyTilly and stumbles into a room containing a charcoal drawing that her friend has apparently made of a woman with long, thin arms that reach to her ankles. Before it burn candles and tea lights, as if it were a shrine. TillyTilly resents Jess’s intrusion into her private place and angrily leads her away, but her mood alters quickly from irritation back to friendship. She promises, “You’ll see me again.”
Back in England, following another bout of illness and precarious emotions, Jess reluctantly returns to school. She still has difficulty assimilating. Afraid to show fear, she is tormented by other pupils and suffers weekly tantrums that send her to the nurse’s office. She has no games, no one to play with, and both her parents are busy, her mother strict and overprotective. Only her father seems sympathetic. Jess desperately misses her friend until TillyTilly raps on the kitchen door, this time wearing a proper English dress and announcing that her family has just moved to London. (This “family” remains unseen.)
When Jess starts to read TillyTilly’s gift copy of Little Women, she finds the familiar story somewhat changed: Docile Beth, her favorite character, has...
(The entire section is 1768 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 2006)
Booklist 101, no. 17 (May 1, 2005): 1571.
Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 6 (March 15, 2005): 310.
Library Journal 130, no. 8 (May 1, 2005): 75.
The New York Times 154 (June 21, 2005): E1-E4.
The New York Times Book Review 154 (July 17, 2005): 17.
Publishers Weekly 252, no. 14 (April 4, 2005): 40.