The fun thing about fairy tales is that anything could happen and Helen Oyeyemi lets it. Her stories are wild but her telling of them is so masterful that they never get away from her. This was true in Boy, Snow, Bird (which I already recommended that you read) and is no less true in the short story collection, What is Not Yours is Not Yours.
It is almost impossible to choose a favorite story from What is Not Yours is Not Yours, but there is one that was particularly interesting to me. The story, Is Your Blood as Red as This, starts out with the subtitle (no), this half of the story is narrated by Radha and is ostensibly the story of her pursuit of Myrna Semyonova the puppet master’s daughter. Radha goes to great lengths to win the attention and perhaps one day, the affection of Myrna. She translates her great-grandfather’s book (a book that he has expressly forbidden be translated from Hindi for fear that translation would break the book) but Myrna is a bookworm and this is one gift that Radha can give her that no one else can. As the book’s magic seeps away, Radha discovers another way that she might win at least more time with the withholding Myrna by winning admission to the puppetry school.
During the audition, Radha meets the stunning Tyche whose puppet is the source of the question that titles the piece. Tyche seems to be in touch with something magical, a deeper more real connection with her puppet than what Radha has experienced with hers. Radha trained with Myrna and has a more intellectual sort of talent with her puppetry so when she meets Tyche she is both enchanted and knows this is her competition. Radha succeeds in gaining admission to the school even though she refused to perform a translation of the final lines of her great-grandfather’s book but is disappointed when she ends up with Gustav as her mentor instead of Myrna. Her proximity to Myrna without the mentor power dynamic allows her to begin to see Myrna’s true nature.
And just like that the story shifts into the second part with a new point of view, this time subtitled (yes). This half is narrated by Gepetta, a haunted brass marionette who is really the former human keeper of the puppets who had all her failing human parts replaced bit by bit by a troupe of sentient puppets until she was fully made of metal. She is still alive in the human way (rather than the sentient puppet way) but she can’t feel the way she used to and for that she took revenge on the troupe, selling them off to the corners of the world. She has become Radha’s puppet at the school but only because Radha can accurately translate what Gepetta says. Gepetta tells the story of Radha falling for Gusstav and how Myrna brings Tyche (Myrna’s mentee) under her control. Gepetta also gives us the history of the outcast Rowan a sentient puppet who looks fully human.
Rowan also brings us Myrna’s backstory which takes us around to the themes that carry through the rest of the book—manipulation and intimacy. No one escapes; in the relationship of humans, a puppet begins to take on a sort of metafictional meaning.
This is a very sexy story that features no actual sex and that is only part of the magic. It’s also a story that would read as a fragment if it ever tried to stand alone. However, as the third story in this collection, it serves to catapult the reader into the rest of the collection in a way I have never experienced before. It frustrates our expectations but the reward is a desire—no hunger, for more. It turns a short story collection into a thrilling page turner a third of the way into the book. Helen Oyeyemi’s capacity for magic and desire reminds me of Angela Carter’s work, not because they are similar beyond the fact that they both work in the realm of the fairy tale but because their stories open up the world, creating strange new and huge landscapes for the imagination. If you’re not reading Helen Oyeyemi you are missing out.