Anyone who has ever encountered a fairy tale is likely to be familiar with the classic ingredients of wicked stepmothers, wise animals, beleaguered maidens and misguided young men. Some, like Cinderella, are so widespread as to be popular from China to Germany; some have been distilled, like Beauty and the Beast, from Greek myths or Norse legends. Far from being the bowdlerised, sentimental pap offered up by Disney, fairy tales are often violent and vindictive, yet contain deep wisdom about what we need to do to become mature adults. They also underpin the art of fiction: as Nabokov said in his lectures on literature, ‘great novels are above all great fairy tales.’
Reworking fairy tales in modern fiction can be hard to get right. Since the start of her career, with the publication in 2005 of The Icarus Girl (which she wrote as a teenager), Helen Oyeyemi’s novels have been haunted by the supernatural. This has sharpened into direct reworkings of fairy tales in novels such as the excellent Mr Fox (based on the story of Bluebeard), Boy, Snow, Bird (based on Cinderella) and White is for Witching. Her fairy tales are not simply drawn from the Brothers Grimm but are also influenced by stories from Nigeria, where she was born and lived until moving to Britain when she was four, and she uses them to explore, among other things, the alienation of growing up black in a predominantly white culture.
In her latest novel, Gingerbread, Harriet and Perdita Lee are a mother and daughter living in contemporary London. There is nothing ordinary about them. Both are outsiders and bakers of gingerbread that ‘is not comfort food. There’s no