Literary Lessons from an Unplanned Collection by Emma Boggs

Friday, 30 October 2020

Do you ever read what you initially thought was a random assortment of books, only to find they are surprisingly related? By this I don’t mean a link that you yourself might draw loosely within your subconscious—I mean a super-strength strand of interrelation between them that seems unlikely, even uncanny. In the last six months, but primarily in June and July before the school year began, I read three such books all in a row. They were all first reads, and all unplanned. They were also all different genres of fiction, making their thematic intersections especially fascinating: All three deal with the home, as well as community—or its counterpoint, isolation. One after the next, I was surprised by each one’s abilities to continue the conversation of the previous text.

The first of these three was Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread, which I picked up at an indie bookstore after seeing it on a shelf among other contemporary fiction novels. I won’t lie about this—I judged it swiftly by its beautiful cover and decided then and there that it would be mine. I knew of Oyeyemi but had not read any of her work; this combined with the book’s whimsical cover art of a bird against a vintage-y pink background was reason enough for the purchase. I’m usually not impulsive, but what a wonderful surprise I wound up with.

How to describe Gingerbread . . . Well, that’s no easy task. It’s a genre-defying novel with a twisty-turny plot and a whole slew of characters that sometimes make your brain hurt. Also, it’s inspired by the fairytale of Hansel and Gretel, in a very take it and run with it (and then put it on drugs) fashion. But it’s worth your mental trouble, because it’s brilliant and beautiful. Oyeyemi writes with so much warmth and lightness, but also with a bit of a bite: Things get unexpectedly dark. For instance, one character falls down a well, another character must work at an establishment that’s part-gingerbread factory and part-child brothel, and so on. The flavor of the novel, then, is much like gingerbread itself—sweet but spiced.

Although it’s pointless to try to describe the plot, I’ll just say that the novel follows three generations of women in the Lee family, who live in England but originate from the mystic land of Druhástrana or “the other side” of Slovakia. There’s a lot to take in, and a lot to unpack. The familiar aspects of the real world are paired with the unfamiliar: There are crazed PTA board members (yup) but also talking dolls and laced gingerbread. You’ve never encountered anything like it, but therein lies its beauty. And ultimately, it’s a story about the three Lee women’s ties with one another, and their ties and longing for their homeland, which I found to be real and resonant experiences despite their highly fictitious backdrop.

And then I read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre for the first time, which could not be more different in form from Gingerbread. Perhaps this was its initial draw, besides the fact that it’d been on my “to-read list” and handily in my basement for years. There are exactly 170 years’ difference between these novels’ publication dates, and where Gingerbread jumps from scene to phantasmagorical scene, Jane Eyre labors over every action and interaction with care. And yet this was an enjoyable change of pace, and a called-for one, too. While the page-by-page intrigue of Gingerbread for me was in its wild images and setting, what continued to compel me on a micro-level in Jane Eyre was Jane’s inner world, the struggles portrayed via her interiority. And so I wasn’t surprised by the slower pace of this classic (it’s written by a Bronte sister, after all) nor did I mind it.

As an aside, I’ll mention now that it was fun to read three novels with such a diverse grouping of strong female lead characters. And while I knew going into my reading of Jane Eyre that she was an opinionated, progressive protagonist, especially for her time, it was a pleasure to read about her for myself. She continually thinks and behaves beyond the norms of her society—and “[she] would always rather be happy than dignified.”

As far as thematic similarities go between the Gingerbread and Jane Eyre, there are many. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane, like Oyeyemi’s Lee family, also shares a fixation with the home—with the ideal of a happy childhood household that she never experienced, and with the possibility of making a happy home with Rochester. Like Perdita (the youngest female in the Lee family), Jane must journey physically and metaphorically to find her true home. And both the Lee family and Jane deal with familial trauma or strife, making both reconsider the value of their families, or what one could call their built-in, most natural communities.

The last book of these three was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. This is Honeyman’s debut novel, and it does not disappoint. In all honesty, I had been avoiding this one for a while because people kept on talking about it, and it has one of those celebrity blurbs on the cover (and right above the title, too)! After giving it a chance, however, that blurb proved to be my only qualm with this book. This work of realistic fiction is funny and heart-breaking all at once, and it’s the type of book that helps you understand a person you would never understand if you weren’t seeing inside his or her (in this case, her) head.

The narrative follows a lonely young woman named Eleanor Oliphant, who is a brutally honest person to the point of discomfort for everyone around her, of which she’s utterly unaware. While she has many a cringeworthy moment (within the first few pages, she watches an old man severely injure himself but doesn’t think to take him to the hospital), she also has many an endearing one. What I think Honeyman does the best, though, is slowly reveal the bits and pieces of Eleanor’s past, which is truly a horrific one, and the ways in which her past dictates her present clueless self. I think this is one of the best qualities a work of fiction can have—peeling back the layers of a compromised character until their true self shines brighter than their flaws.

Not only is Eleanor herself lovely at her core—and by consequence Eleanor the novel, the book is full of lovely prose. I was on vacation when I read it, and thus inhabiting the same space as other people to socialize with, but it’s so wonderful that I found myself wanting to stay back and hermit with my book in a corner. (And I was among great company.)

What’s crazy about my reading Eleanor when I did is that it directly references and quotes Jane Eyre. Again, I had not planned for this. The novel reveals that Eleanor is like Jane in that as a child, she was also an unwanted and abandoned orphan. And Eleanor’s like Jane as an adult because she also struggles to make real connections in the world. Both characters are fiercely independent, which becomes both a blessing and a curse: While able to cope with being alone, they both still long for interdependency. They long to move from their respective places of isolation to genuine love and a community. Along those same lines, both novels consider the meaning of home—specifically, what is a house or home if not filled with other people you love? And furthermore, of what importance is that structure itself in comparison to the people inhabiting it? (Hint: Both stories feature housefires.)

In looking back on these three novels, I’m again astonished by their ties in discussing isolation, loneliness, the home, connection and community. While it feels like a cliche to bring up these themes in conjunction with the current state of our world, I can't ignore the Oliphant—I mean, elephant—in the room. Tales of what home and isolation and community mean could not have come at a more opportune moment than in our pandemical year of 2020. Ironically, as I was setting out to read each one of these books, it was for an escape from the “uncertain and unsettling times” that I found myself in. And yet these books gently returned my mind to the circumstances in a good way, in a way that reminded me of what’s most important: That is, forging and fostering relationships with your people, being grateful for them, and striving to have empathy for all. As the year has only grown increasingly stressful and divisive, I know this last point is an especially critical one. And as these novels themselves reveal firsthand, it’s impossible to truly know anybody else’s past life. It’s impossible to know what circumstances, traumas, setbacks they’ve suffered and been shaped by. So it’s best to give grace, to move towards empathy. In the sage words of Jane Eyre herself, “Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs.”


Emma Boggs is an an MFA candidate in Fiction at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro where she serves as Managing Editor of storySouth.

Category: Creative Nonfiction, Essays, Students

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