Marie Brockhoff

A mention of gingerbread may evoke hygge-inspiring images of holiday coziness. It could also evoke tales of witches devouring roasted children in the woods. Helen Oyeyemi’s critically acclaimed 2019 novel “Gingerbread” treads between both. 

Main character Harriet Lee loves gingerbread. She describes the experience of eating it as “Noshing on the actual and anatomical heart of somebody who scarred your beloved.” Unlike her baking, Harriet is friendly and devoted to her tenacious mother, Margot, and peculiar daughter, Perdita. The family seems normal until their origin comes to light. No one knows for certain if their home country, Druhastrana, actually exists. 

Oyeyemi reveals her mastery of magical realism when Harriet describes Druhastrana. It is replete with nutty but feasible elements like lottery winners systematically notified by synchronized swimmers. However, as in any tale, the country has dark aspects: Oyeyemi delves into issues of poverty, commercial exploitation and family grudges. Harriet and Margot escape to England, to which Oyeyemi still adds a bit of whimsy. For instance, vine-patterned curtains grow together, fantastical language explaining the wind. 

An immense variation of events keeps the novel from dragging, but it is often confusing. I found myself flipping back pages to determine a scene’s location or time. Gingerbread helps bind the novel together, because the family eats the sweet regardless of status, but more clarity would help.