Jessamy (Jess) Harrison is an eight year old girl with a Nigerian mother and British father. She is best described as an eccentric child, who struggles with her biracial and bicultural identity, anxiety attacks, and fitting in at school. It isn’t until her parents take her to Nigeria one summer that Jess finds someone she believes she can call a friend. Jess spends increasingly more time with her new “friend” TillyTilly, although no one else in the family ever meets her, despite their asking several times. After Jess and her family return to England, TillyTilly follows. Jess is thrilled to have a friend at home, but TillyTilly becomes jealous and vengeful, “getting” the people who hurt Jess and tormenting Jess if she spends time with anyone other than her. The plot continuous with TillyTilly’s controlling and manipulative behavior escalating until Jess is scared for her life and those around her. Jess is forced to dig into Nigerian traditions, family secrets, and her own fragmented soul in order to determine what TillyTilly wants and how to stop her.
Although the novel is written rather simplistically, it is strangely riveting. I read in bed until three in the morning, unable to put it down. Although it is easy to see early on TillyTilly is not what she seems, it is hard to determine what she is exactly. Trying to define her as “real” or a figment of Jess’ imagination proved to be a much more daunting task than what I had originally thought. Nigerian folklore regarding spirits, family, and twins further complicate the perception of supernatural occurrences and create a more complex plot than that of your run-of-the-mill ghost story.
Some people have complained that the periphery characters are too flat, but I don’t necessarily see that as a negative thing in the case of this novel. We are getting the story through Jess, an eight year old girl with some severe anxiety and social issues. She has reoccurring panic attacks that leave her screaming, often at school while surrounded by her peers. She prefers to be alone, sometimes locking herself in a cupboard for hours just to get away from all the noise and movement of the outside world. It wouldn’t surprise me if Jess has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder or something else on the Autism spectrum. Based on her characterization, it seems perfectly plausible to me that Jess views the people around her (her mother, father, teacher, therapist) through a very one-sided, opinionated lens. In this way, I feel the centeredness around Jess with a disregard for the periphery characters creates a more authentic novel.
I was amazed upon finding out that Helen Oyeyemi finished the novel when she was only eighteen years old. She did an amazing job creating Jessamy’s character. I never once doubted her, and found myself completely sympathizing with this bright, albeit strange child. The plot she created of a child caught up in something she doesn’t quite understand with no one to turn to is completely irresistible, and I cannot wait to see what other gripping novels she comes up with in the future.
Over all, I really enjoyed reading this novel and highly recommend it for anyone looking for a thrilling, easy read. It is easily finished in a day or two and promises to question your beliefs regarding Africa, traditional religions, and the supernatural.