1

Laura van den Berg

Angela Carter, in a letter to Robert Coover, once wrote: “I really do believe that a fiction absolutely self-conscious of itself as a different form of human experience than reality (that is, not a logbook of events) can help to transform reality itself.”

Carter’s observation struck me while I was reading Helen Oyeyemi’s transcendent first collection of stories, “What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours,” where the cabinet of wonders includes Little Red Riding Hood reborn, with an unlikely entity assuming the role of the girl in red, in “Dornicka and the St. Martin’s Day Goose.” Meanwhile, “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” contains an echo of “Pinocchio,” and the opening story commences with the phrase “Once upon a time.” The pleasurable awareness of a story being told ­courses through the collection like electricity, down to the knowing quality of a title like “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think.”

The cabinet also boasts a young woman who inherits a library; an organization called the Homely Wench Society; a clinic skilled in plunging customers into “drug-induced and -maintained deep sleep” for the purpose of weight loss; ­office employees who wear gloves indoors to avoid incriminating fingerprints; a fretful ghost. In one of the most gripping entries, the lightly speculative “Presence,” a couple, as a re ...

Angela Carter, in a letter to Robert Coover, once wrote: “I really do believe that a fiction absolutely self-conscious of itself as a different form of human experience than reality (that is, not a logbook of events) can help to transform reality itself.”

Carter’s observation struck me while I was reading Helen Oyeyemi’s transcendent first collection of stories, “What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours,” where the cabinet of wonders includes Little Red Riding Hood reborn, with an unlikely entity assuming the role of the girl in red, in “Dornicka and the St. Martin’s Day Goose.” Meanwhile, “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” contains an echo of “Pinocchio,” and the opening story commences with the phrase “Once upon a time.” The pleasurable awareness of a story being told ­courses through the collection like electricity, down to the knowing quality of a title like “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think.”

The cabinet also boasts a young woman who inherits a library; an organization called the Homely Wench Society; a clinic skilled in plunging customers into “drug-induced and -maintained deep sleep” for the purpose of weight loss; ­office employees who wear gloves indoors to avoid incriminating fingerprints; a fretful ghost. In one of the most gripping entries, the lightly speculative “Presence,” a couple, as a result of an experiment, hallucinate a son who never existed: “The next time she went into the kitchen there was a boy sitting at the table eating toast. Twelve years old, maybe 12½. He looked like Jacob and he looked like Jill, and he had mad scientist hair that looked to be his own invention. She had to quickly pop back to the 15th century to find a word for how beautiful he was. The boy was makeless.” Oyeyemi so expertly melds the everyday, the fantastic and the eternal, we have to ask if the line between “real” and “unreal” is murkier than we imagined — or to what extent a line exists at all.

Oyeyemi has written five novels, including the acclaimed “Boy, Snow, Bird,” a recasting of “Snow White,” though to categorize any of her work simply as “fairy-tale retellings” would be reductive. After all, the landscape of the tale lets a writer use familiar mythologies to question past realities and create different ones altogether — to locate new ways to “transform reality itself.”

Keys figure prominently in this collection, as the stories explore how the opening and closing of secrets and histories and hearts can liberate and bind. In some instances, one character’s tale unlocks that of another, as with “Books and Roses,” in which two women with mysterious histories converge. Oyeyemi’s worlds tend toward the expansive — robust casts of characters, elaborate plots that unspool gradually, making way for digressions and asides — and the lock-and-key theme is further reflected in the way the stories spiral nimbly toward their conclusions. Some turns open new dimensions of ambiguity; others offer the satisfaction of narrative pieces sliding into place.

In “ ‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,” a character minding the House of Locks observes, “Every time I go into that bloody house there’s the risk of coming out crazy.” The deeper one descends into the fabulist warrens of these stories, the more mystery and menace abound, and with each story I had the delightful and rare experience of being utterly surprised.

A collection is, by my lights, a chance to build a universe, an overarching ecosystem. But it’s common enough to encounter a hodgepodge instead, where flashes of brilliance are undercut by clunkers. While “What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours” is linked loosely by keys (and also by character — a figure in the wings of one story might take center stage in another, a structure that recalls Yoko Ogawa’s devastating “Revenge”), the collection is even more urgently ­united by the author’s playful, inventive sensibility. Oyeyemi has created a universe that dazzles and wounds.

Share this!