Although Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl is meant to be a young adult novel, a style I normally dislike, it was actually very well thought-out, complex, and interesting. In fact, it was actually pretty hard to put this haunting book down. The story focuses on Jessamy, a strangely intelligent eight-year-old with mixed heritage who has trouble fitting in, and her mysterious friend from Nigeria whom she calls TillyTilly. What starts out as a short and seemingly magical friendship while Jess and her parent are visiting family in Nigeria, turns out to gradually become something much more terrifying as TillyTilly somehow comes back home to England with Jess and uses her powers to keep Jess all to herself. At first it is not quite clear what she means when she says that she’s going to get the people who treat Jess unfairly, but it soon becomes clear what kinds of misfortunes she has planned for them. And this is only the beginning. No one else is allowed to see TillyTilly, which Jess discovers fairly quickly that this is because no one can see her. TillyTilly gradually begins to take more and more control over Jess’s life, trying to convince her that it is because they are friends, and may as well be twins. However, TillyTilly’s techniques become more and more extreme, making her a terrifying and unstoppable force.
Overall, this was an excellent book, though there are a few problems that I had with Jess’s character that took away from my enjoyment. First off, her intelligence level is too high for her age. Jess is constantly reading books like Little Women or Shakespeare, apparently comprehending completely what is occurring, though she annotates her novels if she does not like how a character is being treated. This is not quite as problematic as her too-complex thought patterns, however. An eight-year-old girl should probably not be thinking, “Once you let people know anything about what you think, that’s it, you’re dead. Then they’ll be jumping about in your mind, taking things out, holding them up to the light and killing them, yes, killing them, because thoughts are supposed to stay and grow in quiet, dark places, like butterflies in cocoons.” (86) This clearly adult thought is one of many that Jess is constantly expressing in her head, though sometimes aloud, throughout the story and, in my opinion, making it a little harder to get into.
I liked what little glimpse we got every now and then on Nigerian culture. With familiar subjects of Western medicine versus traditional medicine, a few legends and myths, and general tales of the concepts of twins and abiku, we are given a little bit of insight into a culture that, as a readers, we may not be as familiar with as we would like. However, there were some parts that could have been elaborated on for better understanding. The ibeji statue, while important, was only partially explained. Including the various aspects of traditional Nigerian mythology makes for fascinating plot in an international book, but it makes me wonder if that the reason some of these details were left out is because the book was intended for Nigerian, and not Western readers, though the occasional explanations suggest that they are welcome, too.
I would recommend this book for both young adults and older audiences, particularly if you like haunting stories coupled with real mythology. As long as you don’t mind a few unanswered questions, The Icarus Girl is an excellent read. Some previous knowledge of Nigerian myths may come in handy, however.