Helen Oyeyemi is something of a prodigy. She wrote her first published novel at secondary school. Now, in her early thirties, she has written five lauded novels, and has two plays, and a short story collection under her belt. She is described as having a ‘restless imagination with a smooth, propulsive prose style,’ and of having characters are that are ‘unexpectedly supplanted’ throughout a single story.
SHORN looked at her short story, “Interesting about A and E” – Best friends and the Brontes, published in the New Statesman magazine in March 2016. Written in the first person, the story articulates the intimate grievances and imaginative wonderings of the narrator. Her voice is consistent, but her scenes and characters only come into focus for short moments. Much like a meandering day dream where within one scene is the spring board for another. Thus, structurally, propelling through transitional but seemingly disparate narratives. A triptych. Each piece featuring a new pair of heroines that relate somehow to the previous two like Russian dolls in duet.
In the first section, one gets the feeling that the narrator is doing what most of us do fresh after a row with a best friend. Going over the details in your head to make sure your feelings are valid, or to articulate your argument after the rashness of anger has ebbed, and as I think is the case here, to rationalise your bad behaviour.
A particular snippet from the row acts as a catalyst for deeper musing. Excerpts from a letter conjure a vivid, but childish game — like Doctors and Nurses — where the letter’s subjects become rounded characters in the narrators imagination. She explores the closeness, the impenetrable, intangible bonds that tie sisters to each other. To each other, but also, in this instance, to their carer, the author of the letter. Pondering, the narrator imagines the affection a child can transfer from a mother to a carer. This takes her on a new tangent.
In the final section, we’re taken deeper into her imagination and further into the past (presumably the early 19th century). The characters are maiden sisters who want to discover something about their fertility. Through the women’s zeal we see their lust for motherhood, or a determined attempt to see into their future — of which motherhood was surely the expectation. It is intimated that one of the sisters believes she can’t or won’t have children.
It is immediately clear from the introductory section that the narrator wants to exert control over her own fate, but is all this later tangental meditation evidence that she regrets this? She covets her friend’s children, describing them as ‘winnings’. There is no evidence that she can’t have children, or that she won’t. There is just a series of intangible notions about fitness and ambition. Notably, there is something about the subconscious act of personal sabotage that comes with the narrators conscious acts of professional sabotage. Perhaps this is why we stay with the narrator through all her conjectures. They are an earnest attempt to map in her mind the snail trails of choice.
Although she does have characters usurp each other after every thousand or so words, which is initially perplexing, it is Oyeyemi’s pin point accuracy with language that carries subtle subtexts. SHORN found the story almost impenetrable at first. But on closer reading, it’s like a zoom into the muddled mind of someone who is trying to put their finger on some unspoken, unrecognised regret. A regret intrinsic to her feminine relations.