Bitches Book Club Review: The Icarus Girl

The Book Club:

“At the end of May I was feeling sort of “meh” about the Goodreads book clubs I’m part of. No offence meant to them at all! I like them. But they’re just so BIG that the books I’m particularly interested in don’t often (read: ever?) get picked and there doesn’t feel like there’s enough incentive to take part sometimes. I wanted something that was smaller so, even if I’m not super jazzed about every single book, I feel motivated to read each one because I knew the other member(s) of the book club are reading too and because of the discussion that will ensue.

SO, of course, I voice messaged Claire about it and we decided on a book within the hour!

How it works is that one of us will pick the book one month and the other will pick the book for the next month.”

This month was Nikki’s choice: The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

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yes please

Book: The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
Publisher: Anchor, 2006
Genre: Fantasy/Literature/African/British/Ethnic

Summary: Jessamy “Jess” Harrison, age eight, is the child of an English father and a Nigerian mother. Possessed of an extraordinary imagination, she has a hard time fitting in at school. It is only when she visits Nigeria for the first time that she makes a friend who understands her: a ragged little girl named TillyTilly. But soon TillyTilly’s visits become more disturbing, until Jess realizes she doesn’t actually know who her friend is at all. Drawing on Nigerian mythology, Helen Oyeyemi presents a striking variation on the classic literary theme of doubles — both real and spiritual — in this lyrical and bold debut.
More Information: GoodReads

Nikki’s Thoughts & Rating:

This was a highly anticipated read for me. Oyeyemi has written several novels since her debut, The Icarus Girl, and has generally received a lot of praise for her works of magical realism. And, of course, I was curious about the book written by this newcomer author at only 21 years old when she was still in university. I suppose we are conditioned these days (or probably it has always been the case) to be curious about young talent.

I feel like I simultaneously have a lot and very little to say. I liked the quiet, suspenseful air of foreboding that Oyeyemi was able to construct and the way she weaves the peculiar into the everyday.

Jessamy’s character really annoyed me at times…and then I’d feel bad for being annoyed because there is perhaps a weird place between attention-seeking spoilt brat and nervous/anxious child that is difficult to assess and that calls for better understanding. I would have a difficult time with her, though. And for this reason I often found myself sympathising the most with her mother (and her father, but in a different way). Even when he mother would do or say questionable things that I didn’t always agree with, I understood the plight she was in. In a weird way, because I was “in” Jessamy’s head, I found it difficult to feel sorry for her when she had her screaming fits. Complicated feelings ensue.

Conversely, it also got me thinking about the kinds of characters I tend to love. They aren’t always like me necessarily (maybe in some ways), but I think they are often what I would like to be. (Do you tend to like characters who are like you, not at all like you, or like what you’d like to be?) My favourite character in this story was definitely Shivs: the fearless, kind, cheeky little loudmouth.

This story was actually a great vehicle for touching on a lot of things that seem incidental to the story about the life of a mixed-race and (equally importantly) mixed-culture family. I felt worried at times that there might be a Western tendency to judge the African family culture which, like the Caribbean family, can be difficult to understand the intricacies of if you’re outside of it. I think it was represented fairly accurately, and I know that it may seem harsh at times, but I don’t think there’s much that can be done about how outsiders to that culture will perceive it… It was also interesting to see the way dysfunction was shown at varying levels in two different families with different cultures (Colleen’s and Jessamy’s).

Tilly’s story was predictable, but I don’t think it was meant to be a surprise either. It was more like dramatic irony as the reader knows, more or less, what is going on but Jess, a child, cannot see what seems so obvious because she’s blinded by the enormity of her loneliness, naivety and desire for friendship.

I think The Icarus Girl is somewhere just under four stars for me, but close enough. I did really enjoy it and I would absolutely recommend it for a fun, suspenseful, mildly(!) scary read.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Nikki’s favourite line(s):

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, yes, killing them, because thoughts are supposed to stay and grow in quiet, dark places, like butterflies in cocoons.

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Claire’s Thoughts & Rating:

I will first start off by saying that I finished this book in one day. I started it on my way to work on a Friday and somehow continued reading it on the tube back home. Five hours later and it’s around 3AM now, I finish the book and shut it, putting it down by my window. I was… I don’t know how to put it into words but I was quiet, I was just content and quiet. It is rare for a book to do this to me, and only a few others (the first Harry Potter, The Hours or The Thing Around Your Neck) have done this to me (because it feels like a thing done to me, like this book manipulated my emotions and mood to an utter quiet).

I am biracial, with a white father and black mother. I am also bicultural, with my mother being Bajan and my father growing up in a more Western-styled Canadian household (with a slight Bahamian influence, mostly seen in our family affection for farming and pineapples). So when Nikki highlighted this book as the October pick I was excited and nervous. I don’t like reading books with biracial characters sometimes because I get a bit mad and don’t often want to be reminded of similar issues that the narrator and I might have- I’m getting too personal now, I’ll switch.

To start over, this book is well written, and it is even more astonishing because it was written by someone so young. I do agree with Nikki that we are conditioned to adore young talent but here it is well deserved and well placed. A bit about the author to put this into context (taken from Wikipedia):

Oyeyemi wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, while still at school studying for her A levels at Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School. While studying social and political sciences at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, two of her plays, Juniper’s Whitening and Victimese, were performed by fellow students to critical acclaim and subsequently published by Methuen. In 2007 Bloomsbury published Oyeyemi’s second novel, The Opposite House, which is inspired by Cuban mythology. Her third novel, White is for Witching, described as having “roots in Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe” was published by Picador in May 2009. It was a 2009 Shirley Jackson Award finalist and won a 2010 Somerset Maugham Award. A fourth novel, Mr Fox, was published by Picador in June 2011, and a fifth, Boy, Snow, Bird in 2014

Oyeyemi writes with thought and is really quite good at building tension and wonder, as well as apprehension in a consistent and bold way. You never feel that the plot is contrived or is cutting any corners, it sets the pace of a normal life.

My one quip is with the narrator, Jessamy. For an 8 year old she is very eloquent, and I loved that she’s a bookish nerd as well. I do feel that her actions were a bit over-dramatized at time but it worked in a way, you feel for the characters parents. Unlike Nikki, I think I felt more for the father, rather than the mother but I believe this is due to my bias, seeing my own father stick out like a sore thumb when we went to visit our Caribbean family in Barbados. I do like that Oyeyemi respected the family and its culture as well, nothing is fetishized or odd, the actions as well as beliefs of both African and English families are declared in an honest and open way so that readers can draw their own opinions on them.

Another theme in the book that is explored quite well, and is one of my favorites, is the notion of looking beneath the surface. Perfect children and families are not what they seem and as such you gain new sympathy for the characters and their private pain. In the end, there is a bit of a climax and you are left wondering what was the cause of Jessamy’s pain, was it her internal struggle or is there something just a big magical to it that we can never know about? I like that, that it is open to interpretation.

The only reason I can’t give this a 5 is because of Jessamy’s tone of voice (seriously, how is she 8?), but other than that this book is amazing and when I write a post on favorite British authors, this book and author will be right on it.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Claire’s Favorite Line:

“Two hungry people should never make friends. If they do, they eat each other up. It is the same with one person who is hungry and another who is full: they cannot be real, real friends because the hungry one will eat the full one. You understand?”

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Have you read this book yet?

If you have, what did you think? If you haven’t, do you want to?

November’s Book Club choice is Claire’s and she chose…

Feel free to read along with us! 🙂

NameNikkixClaire

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About Claire (BWB)

It's Claire (aka Quirky) from Bitches With Books, an online book blog that serves up a healthy dose of book reviews, lists + literary madness.
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3 Responses to Bitches Book Club Review: The Icarus Girl

  1. Pingback: Claire x Nikki Review November 2015 | Bitches With Books

  2. moosha23 says:

    Oh The Icarus Girl sounds intriguing – I haven’t read anything like it before so I’d dive into that one just because of that. Hmm, I like characters who I can relate to, but I love characters who appear likeable but really, really aren’t – I think it’s genius.
    I think being so interested in young talent is really cool – I guess people don’t expect it from themselves either typically because of the learning curve writers tend to go through and the common belief that writers really succeed in their careers very much so later on in their writing lives if that makes sense.
    Still, I myself am astonished that she’s such an already successful literary figure at such a young age! Will keep my eyes open for this one.

    • Claire (BWB) says:

      It’s well worth it actually. She’s quite talented I think and I really want to read some of her other work! I’ve seen the book in Waterstones and around London actually and you can get it fairly cheap online (not amazon as Nikki would hate me if I advocated them) but Waterstones Marketplace.

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