What is Not Yours is Not Yours was published in March of 2016 by Riverhead Books and came out in paperback March of 2017. Helen Oyeyemi is the author of five novels, and I’m angry at myself for never having picked up her work before this collection of stories, if this is any indication of her talent—which I’m sure that it is—because this style of writing and the world that is created in each of these stories is something that I’ve been looking for for a long time. These stories take place in different times, places, but the main character in one story will be mentioned in passing in a later as a family member, or ex-lover. This leads the reader to meditate what worlds we’ve created around us and how we don’t always realize the intersections with other worlds and stories. These stories are each built around the idea of keys; keys to a home, to a heart, to a garden, a library, books, anything that could possibly need a key to open is in this collection.
My top three stories in this collection were: “Books and Roses,” “Is Your Blood as Red as This,” and “A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society.” These three stories show the breadth of Oyeyemi’s storytelling abilities and character development.
“Books and Roses” opens with a mother leaving her child to a monastery with a mysterious key around her neck. She does not, and the story follows Montserrat as she grows up and seeks out her own family history. In this, we meet an eccentric artist whose lover left her with a key to a garden, and upon meeting Lucy the narrative of the story changes. This happens throughout the collection, a story that you think is going to be about an orphan with a key finding her family, becomes a love story between two thieves, which then turns a mystery of a library full of a million books. This is a trend in these stories, they start in one place giving the reader one set of expectations and through a series of twists and turns until it is a completely new story. This suspense, and knowledge that everything could change very quickly kept me at the edge of my seat the whole time I was reading.
My magical realism loving heart started fluttering when I got to “Is Your Blood as Red as This,” which is full of living puppets (with no Pinocchio nose growing), ghosts, a wooden devil, and all the difficulties of teenage relationships. There is nothing in your face magical about this piece, no spells or enchantments, just living puppets and reassembled bodies. In each of the more magical stories in this collection, Oyeyemi treats the fantastic as if there is nothing out of the ordinary about it. There is no long explanation about how the magic has happened, it is readily accepted by the characters which makes it all the easier for the reader to take as being true.
The opening of “A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society” takes a different stylistic approach than any of the other stories in this collection, which I think shows the breadth of Oyeyemi’s talent. It opens with an invitation to join a society of women that “emerged in direct opposition to a brotherhood” (219). It shows the joining together of a sisterhood long ago formed to go against the wrongs placed on them, and then the struggle to maintain that mission as the actions and values of the brotherhood they were formed to oppose have changed. This story felt like a quintessential tale of college students, joining together with the only intention of being in opposition to someone else.
The worlds that are created in each short story come together to create a universe that is populated by the furthest reaches of the imagination in unexpected ways. You have to give each story in this collection room to breathe and come into them with little or no expectations because something greater than what you wanted is always right around the corner.
Recommendation: This feels like it would be the perfect book to read on vacation, something to help take you further away from whatever stresses you are trying to leave behind. If you want your fiction to leave you wanting something more, to create a world without any of the typical worldbuilding techniques, if you’re searching for an adventure in far off universe, give this one a try.