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.
Most contemporary gothic storiesare characterised by unearthly visions and nightmarish creatures that send goosebumps up our skin. They are filled with ghosts, demons, ferocious beasts, and old, manor houses. Yet these stories are at their most powerful when they are grounded in reality and draw on our real fears and insecurities; as Stephen King famously said, “[m]onsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win” (2001). Gothic literature has traditionally been a way for writers to explore their own fears, as well as the fears of their society or culture, and nowhere can this be more apparent than in Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl.
Published in 2005, The Icarus Girl is Oyeyemi’s debut novel, written when she was only eighteen years old. It is told from the perspective of eight-year-old Jessamy Harrison who, with an English father and a Nigerian mother, has always felt out of place. The novel draws on Jessamy’s cultural alienation to weave a thrilling tale that will leave its readers overwhelmed with emotions. They will feel sympathy for Jessamy, whose isolation and childish ignorance acts as a lens through which the story is told, and they will feel fearful of the nightmares she experiences. Yet they may also feel inspired by Oyeyemi’s story, for consistent references to Nigerian traditions allow her to consider ghouls and monsters that are not always present in popular culture.
Of course, this story is made dramatically more impressive by the sheer power of Oyeyemi’s writing. Using haunting imagery and graceful descriptions to convey her story, Oyeyemi makes a gothic tale seem beautiful. She also demonstrates the incredible effects of using a child narrator; what, to an adult, would seem chilling or perhaps even frightening becomes truly grotesque when viewed by a child—and it is true that some of the nightmares Jessamy experiences are so vivid, many would call The Icarus Girl a horror novel. This vivid imagery can be seen in both the fantastical monsters Jessamy encounters and the more subtle, unearthly side of the gothic genre, which Oyeyemi explores through the complex relationships Jessamy forms and the intense, internal battles that see her fighting to understand her own identity. Riddled with foreshadowing and cultural unease, this is a book that reminds us of the power of the gothic genre. Helen Oyeyemi is a skilled author who has successfully demonstrated how genuine fears can be both explored and exaggerated through the written word.