Children have been a longstanding part of horror. Whether you clutch your pearls at the thought of precious innocents in danger or find little kids to be extremely creepy to begin with, few things bring the terror like the involvement of a child. Helen Oyeyemi plays with both tropes at once in The Icarus Girl, and presents a bold narrative about lost innocence and the ways you can never go home again.
BEHIND THE PEN
Born in Nigeria in 1984, Helen Olajumoke Oyeyemi moved with her family at the age of four to Lewisham in South London. An imaginative and introspective child, Oyeyemi struggled with clinical depression throughout her school years, finding comfort in reading, writing and rewriting her favourite stories. At 18, Oyeyemi began work on her first novel, The Icarus Girl (2005), which was published while Oyeyemi was a social and political sciences student at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Since leaving Cambridge, Oyeyemi has lived a peripatetic life in Paris, Toronto, London, Berlin, Budapest, and Prague, among other global cities. She is the author to date of seven novels, two plays and one short story collection.
A NO-SPOILER SUMMARY
Jessamy “Jess” Harrison, age eight, is the child of an English father and a Nigerian mother. Possessed of an extraordinary imagination, she has a hard time fitting in at school. It is only when she visits Nigeria for the first time that she makes a friend who understands her: a ragged little girl named TillyTilly. But soon TillyTilly’s visits become more disturbing, until Jess realizes she doesn’t actually know who her friend is at all.
VOICES FROM WITHIN
The Icarus Girl gained enough of a HOWL Society following that it spawned several server emojis. The discussion continued long after the allotted week and, to write this post, I had to scroll past pages and pages of jam and cheese sandwiches, created (and eaten) by our members in honor of Jessamy’s favorite snack. HOWLers praised the book’s incredible creepiness, the inventive use of the supernatural, and Oyeyemi’s use of minor details as keystones to understanding the novel.
Many members enjoyed the use of a childish third person narrator attached to Jessamy. They found that it was rewarding without veering into being a plot clutch. One HOWLer said, “I hesitated, because it is so hard to successfully do a child pov, but this book is nailing it” and another chimed in, “I agree that the author writes from a child’s perspective so well – so much so that the book has me flashing back to what it felt like to be a child. Like the otherworldliness and unfairness of being a child in an adult’s world, and the common sense of childhood which is so different than the common sense of adulthood. It had me wishing I could still tap into that authenticity myself.”
The characterization of Jessamy also resonated with HOWLS members. Jessamy struggles with more than the supernatural, and one HOWLer said they liked the way “Oyeyemi doesn’t label her, leaves us to struggle with it the way Jess does, because nobody in Jess’s life will get her help from someone qualified to help her, and she’s left to just kind of deal with it on her own, and wonder why she can’t seem to make friends or enjoy the amusement park, too.” Others noted that they were mad on Jessamy’s behalf, and that watching her fall through the cracks with her parents and her school was just as disturbing as the supernatural elements.
Aside from spawning a wealth of jam and cheese sandwich recipes, the book also spurred HOWLS members into reading about Yoruba mythology, abiku children, and ibeji dolls.
WELCOME TO THE BLURBS: HOWL SOCIETY MEMBERS’ REVIEWS IN THEIR OWN WORDS
- This book perfectly tied the mundane to the paranormal.
- The Icarus Girl put me in a trance from the very start, successfully forcing me to see the world through the eyes of 8-year-old Jessamy. The loneliness of childhood, the pressures put on you by your parents, the difficulty in figuring out what society expects of you without telling you—these are all shown clearly, and it’s heartbreaking. Oyeyemi has also created one of the most unsettling, surreal, terrifying monsters I’ve ever read.
- I’ve never read a book that touched on as many topics as this one with the same amount of tact. The duality and inner turmoil of mixed races, African mythology, family dynamics, mental illness, friendships good and bad… every topic is important and adds to the plot in meaningful ways, which makes it even more admirable Helen Oyeyemi wrote it when she was only nineteen.
- This book was so so good and it really creeped me out!! It’s been several days since I finished, and I still want to hide under the covers so TillyTilly can’t find me. Oyeyemi nails what it’s like to be a kid, and the tension between cultures is just so expertly presented. Each of the characters is so deeply real. Also, I can’t recommend the audiobook enough. This is an absolute work of art!
- This is a truly horrifying tale about a young girl dealing with the ever-increasing presence and manipulation of her new friend Titiola. With themes of psychological horror, Nigerian mythology, and a child trying to learn who she is, this book grips you from the start and never lets go.
The Icarus Girl is both delightful and terrifying in turn. Artfully written but gripping enough to be a page-turner, Oyeyemi manages to use a child’s voice to present a multi-layered and complex horror novel that will stick with you long after you are done reading.