The Icarus Girl

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1768

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.

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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 become jealous and mean. That night she has her first dream of the strange, long-armed woman of the drawing, who flies past her, saying, “We are the same.” The next morning, Jess’s book has returned to its original version. After she dreams again of flying with the woman with the rubbery arms, she too tries to draw the woman’s picture, but TillyTilly quickly tears it up and draws herself instead.

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Because bullying on the school playground compels Jess to fight back, she faces discipline, but her parents disagree on the proper punishment. Although Daniel, a gentle man, does not believe in corporal punishment, Sarah does. As a result, Jess is forced to hold heavy cans of pineapple at arm’s length for half an hour. When TillyTilly appears and mocks her, Jess realizes that her playmate can be cruel and unpredictable. She wonders if the TillyTilly in England could be a different person from her talented friend in Nigeria.

Jess’s parents have enlisted the aid of a psychologist, Dr. Colm McKenzie, to meet with Jess at his home, where the two can talk informally over hot chocolate and marshmallows in the kitchen. There Jess also encounters his redheaded daughter, Siobhan (Shivs), who is her own age, and the two hit it off immediately. TillyTilly resents the sessions with Dr. McKenzie and becomes even more annoyed when Shivs enters the picture.

Slowly Jess becomes aware that TillyTilly is invisible to others, and that sometimes so is she. She recognizes that TillyTilly is changing her: Her perceptions have begun to alter, her attitudes change, even her memories are subtly modified. When finally she is brave enough to question whether TillyTilly is real, her companion temporarily vanishes.

TillyTilly is clearly unstable, a trickster who can speak without moving her face. She tells Jess not to ask questions because she does not like them. She says she is older than Jess, but she seems to distort time. At one point she pulls Jess down with her through the staircase, through brown earth, into a cramped, dark place. They fall, bump, and awkwardly rise together. TillyTilly’s powers are imperfect; she cannot control everything and has made some kind of mistake. Jess is really frightened.

After TillyTilly says that they are both twins, Jess does not know what to believe. She still dreams of the “wise-eyed” flying woman, sensing that TillyTilly and the woman are somehow connected, even though they never appear together. Her visions grow hallucinatory. Feverish, she hears a tiny baby cry underneath her bed, only to be snatched away by TillyTilly. Then, accompanied by an odd, buzzing hum, TillyTilly informs her that the baby, Fern, is Jess’s stillborn twin.

When Jess confronts her parents with this story, Sarah cries out that “the spirits tell her things.” The parents have kept Fern a secret from Jess, honoring the Nigerian custom of avoiding any talk of death. Sarah explains to Jess the Nigerian belief that twins are able to live in three worlds: the real world, the spirit world, and the Bush (“a sort of wilderness of the mind”). If one twin dies in childhood, the family will make a wooden carving of the child for Ibeji, the god of twins, to ensure that the dead twin is peaceful and will not harm the living. Sarah regrets that an ibeji statue was not made at Fern’s death, but even now Jess is not fully aware of the danger.

The knowledge of her dead twin shocks her. Almost automatically she cuts out pictures of twins from books at school to show TillyTilly. At this point she knows that something is seriously wrong. Further nightmarish moments follow: She finds herself in intense pain, pressing a burning coal to her lips as TillyTilly encourages her. TillyTilly holds a black chalice, urging Jess to look inside, but she refuses. A shapeshifter, TillyTilly is at one horrific moment “stretched out over the ceiling like a grinning sheet.”

TillyTilly is spinning out of control, uttering obscure threats to “get” the baby-sitter, a teacher, a girl at school, anyone who dares to intimidate Jess. Shortly thereafter, someone at school announces that her teacher is gone, replaced by a substitute. At first Jess is not sure what “get” means, but she ultimately discovers how destructive it can be: “It was as if TillyTilly had a special sharp knife that cut people on the inside so that they collapsed into themselves and couldn’t ever get back out.” When TillyTilly suggests that they trade bodies and jumps inside her, Jess attempts unsuccessfully to reenter her own body. Both girls are terrified, but they manage to switch back.

The friendship between them is foundering, for both Jess and TillyTilly are too needy. Jess finally understands her grandfather’s advice: “Two hungry people should never make friends. If they do, they eat each other up.” She knows that TillyTilly is no longer safe for her to be with. Jess finds herself trapped in her bed in a sort of Exorcist moment, with TillyTilly’s altered voice warning, “Stop looking to belong, half-and-half child . . . there is only me, and I have caught you.” Then her father collapses at work.

The Icarus Girl is mostly centered around its complicated plot. Character development is not a strength, except for the bizarre figure of TillyTilly, but who or what she really is remains unclear. Is she some aspect of Jess’s dead twin, Fern? Is she a malevolent spirit, the alter ego of the benign long-armed woman who sings, tells stories, yet is never seen at the same time as TillyTilly?

In spite of her otherworldly properties, TillyTilly is certainly not the Icarus Girl of the title. She seeks the shadows, luring Jess to basements, cellars, to darkness under the bed or under the couch. She plummets with Jess through the floor, through the ground, into nothingness. Jess, on the other hand, has had fantasies of flying from the beginning. She often dreams of flying with the long-armed woman. Like the boy Icarus, who would soar to the blazing sun, she longs to fly upward and eventually succeeds. This disturbing, uneven book contains enough dualism to make everyone dizzy, but the roller-coaster ride of a story can be frightening and is definitely not for children.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 29

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.

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