What is Not Yours is Not Yours

What is Not Yours is Not Yours is a short story collection written by Helen Oyeyemi, published in 2016. Ever since hearing about it prior to its release, I’ve been interested to read these stories focused on and around keys – real and imaginary, with fairytale themes and magical realism elements woven in there. Unfortunately on the whole, it was a disappointing reading experience. As with all collections there will be a mix of good and bad (almost all), but in this case it was a definite leaning towards the less impressive that made up the bulk of the reading for me.

The first story, “books and roses”, was one of my favourites – it’s possibly the longest one in the bunch and is not only long in the actual page count but is perhaps also the most intricate, with stories within stories. It follows a young woman who as a baby has been left in the care of a religious house of some sort if I’m not mistaken, and she’s taken care of there – but then we see parts of the story of her life, and parts of the story of a woman she gets to know – and how their two stories have unexpected connections. It’s kind of hard to sum up this story because it goes in several directions and moves from character to character, it doesn’t focus in on this one woman even though that’s where it starts off and where it ends. All I can say really is that it’s magical, it’s got a sense of being a tale told and re-told, a “folkore” feel to it actually rather than fairytale, which is to say it feels a bit more grounded in history than in the surreal although it definitely has its elements of magic too.

Another story I really liked was “a brief history of the homely wench society”; which is basically about two secret societies, one brotherhood sort of society and the sisterhood society that is created as a sort of response to the “only-boys” allowed rule, there’s a bit about the societies, the rivalry between them, and about a girl – set in the present – who is part of the homely wench society, and one particular moment in her life where the societies meet. Again, I don’t think I’m making myself that clear since it’s a bit hard to sum up Oyeyemi’s stories in few words, they have so many threads going at the same time. But I liked the blend of history, feminism, and a sort of tongue in cheek attitude that seeped through this story.

When Oyeyemi is on her game she’s great. She can be so effortlessly entertaining and funny at times, poking fun at modern society in all its silliness and glory. Often times I found myself smiling or even laughing at an especially cut-to-the-core kind of truth that will lose some of its edge with time, which is certainly one of its strengths now but might not be in the future. Another thing I really liked was her magical touch at times – especially in the above two stories but it’s obvious she’s got a wonderful imaginiation and much beautiful imagery in these stories – that was lovely to read.

However, there were quite a few stories here that I thought lacked direction and precision. They felt too chaotic; not in the sense of them being magical realism and done on purpose in that way but rather that they weren’t planned out in advance, just taking shape and not being re-shaped and re-constructed after the fact. As I said earlier, a lot of these stories have several threads going; which would be fine if one is able to connect them all, weave them in so as not to leave strands hanging – but personally I don’t think she manages to make them all come together. It felt sloppy at times, even when the threads were made of gold and shimmer – the actual execution left something to be desired. I do think part of this has to do with my taste as a reader – what I expect from a short story especially. For me a short story needs extra direction, in comparison to a novel where there’s time to go off tangents and develop a more complicated backdrop. A short story should in my opinion be planned, weighed, have not a single word in it that doesn’t serve a purpose. It’s fine to have stories with magical elements, to be taking the route of direction in unexpected ways – it doesn’t have to be linear. But I think a story that doesn’t have some sort of direction – even the irregular ones – end up being long-form poetry, or if they’re not beautifully written – just ramblings. That’s my two scents on short stories, feel free to disagree.

I know the interconnected stories was one of the reasons people like this collection as a whole; that it’s clever how they connect to eachother. For me, this added nothing and in fact I found it instead to be a lazy plot device that was distracting and took me out of the stories. But again, this might be a personal taste thing – I just didn’t think it added anything to the stories, maybe it would’ve if I read the stories closer to eachother, or if I read them again. But as it is, I didn’t think the connections added anything aside from the one detail of who set fire to the house.

All in all, I think there’s potential in Oyeyemi’s writing and I like many of the themes and imagery she plays with, but ultimately this was kind of a sloppy mixed bag for me and I hope I will get on with her novels better. Only time will tell.

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