Summary and book reviews of The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

The Icarus Girl

By Helen Oyeyemi

The Icarus Girl
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  • Hardcover: Jun 2005,
    352 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2006,
    352 pages.

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Book Summary

Jessamy "Jess" Harrison is eight years old. Sensitive, whimsical, possessed of an extraordinary and powerful imagination, she spends hours writing haiku, reading Shakespeare, or simply hiding in the dark warmth of the airing cupboard. As the child of an English father and a Nigerian mother, Jess just can't shake off the feeling of being alone wherever she goes, and the other kids in her class are wary of her tendency to succumb to terrified fits of screaming. Believing that a change from her English environment might be the perfect antidote to Jess's alarming mood swings, her parents whisk her off to Nigeria for the first time where she meets her mother's family—including her formidable grandfather.

Jess's adjustment to Nigeria is only beginning when she encounters Titiola, or TillyTilly, a ragged little girl her own age. To Jess, it seems that, at last, she has found someone who will understand her. But gradually, TillyTilly's visits become more disturbing, making Jess start to realize that she doesn't know who TillyTilly is at all.

Helen Oyeyemi draws on Nigerian mythology to present a strikingly original variation on a classic literary theme: the existence of "doubles," both real and spiritual, who play havoc with our perceptions and our lives. Lyrical, haunting, and compelling, The Icarus Girl is a story of twins and ghosts, of a little girl growing up between cultures and colors. It heralds the arrival of a remarkable new talent.

ONE

"Jess?"

Her mother's voice sounded through the hallway, mixing with the mustiness around her so well that the sound almost had a smell. To Jess, sitting in the cupboard, the sound of her name was strange, wobbly, misformed, as if she were inside a bottle, or a glass cube, maybe, and Mum was outside it, tapping.

I must have been in here too long--

"Jessamy!" Her mother's voice was stern.

Jessamy Harrison did not reply.

She was sitting inside the cupboard on the landing, where the towels and other linen were kept, saying quietly to herself, I am in the cupboard.

She felt that she needed to be saying this so that it would be real. It was similar to her waking up and saying to herself, My name is Jessamy. I am eight years old.

If she reminded ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Deftly blending the motifs of African folklore with an original new voice, Nigerian born Helen Oyeyemi tells a haunting story of twins and ghosts, of a little girl growing up between cultures and colors, to capture the mysterious power of myth to transform reality.

Powerfully imaginative and compelling, The Icarus Girl is perfect for you next reading group choice. Here are some questions to enhance your discussions:

Discussion Questions

  1. Jessamy Harrison has a Nigerian mother and an English father. How important is Jess's mixed race? How important are these two very different cultures to her...

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Reviews

Media Reviews
The New York Times - Lesley Downer

The Icarus Girl explores the melding of cultures and the dream time of childhood, as well as the power of ancient lore to tint the everyday experiences of a susceptible little girl's seemingly protected life. Deserving of all its praise, this is a masterly first novel -- and a nightmarish story that will haunt Oyeyemi's readers for months to come.

Publishers Weekly

As sophisticated as she is, Jess's eight-year-old observations provide a limited lens, and at times, the novel's fantasy element veers into young adult suspense territory.

Kirkus Reviews

Narrated from Jess's point-of-view, this ambitious psychodrama becomes repetitive in structure andcan't always sustain the adult tone. A conclusion in Nigeria attempts to knit Jess's three worlds-the actual, the spiritual and the "Bush"-but doesn't wholly rescue or resolve a story rich in material yet technically imbalanced.

Booklist - Deborarh Donovan

Oyeyemi subtly weaves together Nigerian myth and a classic doppelganger tale to create a sensitive and precocious debut.

Library Journal

Oyeyemi, who wrote this book at the tender age of 19, intertwines folk tales from different cultures to spin this mesmerizing and haunting story.

The Financial Times

Oyeyemi looks set to claim her own place in a list of English-language Nigerian authors that includes Amos Tutuola, Chinua Achebe and, more recently, Ben Okri.

Sunday Telegraph

The Icarus Girl is an astonishing achievement.

Author Blurb Kerri Sakamoto, author of The Electrical Field and One Hundred Million Hearts
The Icarus Girl is a dark enchantment that leads readers into the recesses of a young girl's fevered psyche. A bewitching tale of childhood joy and wonder, pain, loss, and cultural estrangement."

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Beyond the Book

Helen Oyeyemi was born in Nigeria in 1984 and has lived in London from the age of four.

Even though she says she doesn't do happiness - 'I don't trust it' - she had much to smile about in 2004 when Bloomsbury UK (J.K. Rowling's publisher) signed her up for a two-book deal at the age of 19 years, on the basis of the manuscript of The Icarus Girl that she wrote while studying for her A-Levels (exams taken before leaving UK high schools). She says, 'I signed the contract on the day I got my exam results'. Although she refuses to reveal the size of the advance she says its enough to put her through university and help out her parents ...

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