Fairy tales, despite their fantastical nature, contain more truth than many stories based in reality. They teach us lessons that are otherwise hard to swallow when wrapped in reality and clarify aspects of our lives that might otherwise remain clouded. Helen Oyeyemi creates a new storytelling experience through her latest collection of short stories What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, both by reimagining classics like The Adventures of Pinocchio and “Little Red Riding Hood” and by telling new stories that still feel like fairy tales. Each story, abundant with magic and meaning, mixes the commonplace and the fantastic to reexamine what we qualify as “real,” all through delightfully intentional storytelling.
The stories, decisively different in content and message, form a cohesive novel tied together by overlapping characters and recurring motifs. Collections of short stories can seem disjointed, but Oyeyemi’s works fit together perfectly, though what unifies them is not always clear. The stories span continents and time periods—and possibly realities—but each contains glimpses of the others by simply mentioning a name or making a minor character reappear as the narrator in another story, showing the world to be much smaller than we believe. A daughter, only briefly referred to in one story, comes back as the main character in another about a secret group called the Homely Wench Society, crossing continents. Oyeyemi doesn’t allow people to be merely two-dimensional, for, as is true in life, each person that may only play a supporting role in another story has their own experiences.
More unifying than the reappearance of characters is the recurring motif of keys, both physical and metaphorical. The keys have different uses, whether they are used to lock or unlock, to liberate or to restrict. In the opening story “Books and Roses,” a physical key unlocks a secret library, while another unlocks a garden of roses and a character’s secret, scandalous past. Keys keep prison doors shut in invented kingdoms; they unlock a mysterious diary in the aptly named “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think”; they open mystical wooden boxes in a world of professional puppeteers, living puppets, and ghosts. But they also reflect the way the stories occasionally “lock up” the story with a conclusion that falls perfectly into place or, more often, reveal new information right at the end, leaving the tales unfinished.
Though few of the stories have resolutions and leave many questions unanswered, reading them is immensely satisfying, as they are all fueled by Oyeyemi’s energetic language and self-aware storytelling style. She blends the fantastic with the reality we know, for even the characters of the stories are unable to differentiate between the two, confused by the mélange. Oyeyemi creates worlds more alive, more “real” than our own, and in doing this, she makes our own world easier to understand. The diversity of the collection does not detract from the coherence of the universe created but rather enlivens and enriches it. What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is eclectic and electric, brimming with passion and artistry, helping us better understand the world by reimagining it.