Here. Take this key. It might open a house, a heart, a secret.
What links each of these stories in Helen Oyeyemi’s collection is keys: keys that are gifts, threats, invitations, gateways. Keys that haven’t found their locks. Here, as characters slip from the pages of their own stories only to surface in another, you will find vanished libraries and locked gardens, lovers exchanging books and roses, and a city where all the clocks have stopped…
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a delightfully magical collection of short stories by Helen Oyeyemi. Her small but richly imagined worlds are captivating, and at the end of every story I was left aching for more.
The sweeping stories in the collection range from magical realism to utter fairy tale, and though they are diverse in terms of setting and narrator, all of Oyeyemi’s characters seem to share a sense of being at a loss, whether it’s the stepfather who seeks to comfort his teenage daughter, grieving after the discovery that her favourite pop star and the erstwhile love of her life, Matyas Furst, is a violent criminal, to Monste and Lucy, two women with nothing in common but the keys they wear around their necks, both of them symbols of a person who promised to return, but, thus far as least, hasn’t.
The collection is like a tangle of threads, with side characters from one story suddenly appearing as the narrator in another. A character we might have perceived as evil in a previous story suddenly pops up elsewhere, totally changed observed by a different pair of eyes. In perhaps my favourite pair of stories “is your blood as red as this? (no)” and “yes”, we first read the story of trainee puppeteer Radha’s unrequited love followed by what happened next, narrated by Radha’s puppet, Gepetta.
As you’d imagine just because of the form, some of the stories are deeply, and, I think, deliberately, unsatisfying. They seem to end just as it’s getting good, and I was left reading the final pages repeatedly, looking for the resolution Oyeyemi had denied me. The characters almost always left me before I was ready for them to go, and I think it’s a testament to Oyeyemi’s skill that in such a short period of time she had me utterly invested in narrators who often did nothing to ease me into the situation. More often than not the story would start in the middle of the action and it was the job of me, the reader to put the pieces together and catch up from the clues she dropped along the way. Other stories were very and surprisingly cathartic, with baddies getting their comeuppance and some, and centuries-old conflicts ended by one person willing to wave the white flag.
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours took me by surprise. As I’ve mentioned before, short stories aren’t always my thing, but these captivated me and I have not stopped recommending them to people.
I have decided I for sure need some more Oyeyemi in my life. Fortunately for me, she’s written plenty for me to choose from.