A mixed-race eight-year-old girl is haunted by her imaginary friend, family secrets and the two cultures she inhabits.
Oyeyemi’s much-publicized debut, completed shortly before her 19th birthday, enters the troubled mind of Jessamy Harrison, the “half-and-half” daughter of a Nigerian mother and British father. Nervy and alienated, Jessamy finds the world too fast and expectant. Oyeyemi drip-feeds her problems: she has trouble eating in front of strangers, is bullied at school, takes refuge in cupboards and often resorts to screaming tantrums. On a first family visit to Nigeria she meets Titiola—or TillyTilly—a friend who has magic powers but forbids Jess to talk about her: “Can’t you tell that I’m not supposed to be there.” Back home, Jess is first ill, then in difficulties again at school, so is thrilled when TillyTilly reappears, an ally who seems able to sneak invisibly into the homes of her enemies. But who is TillyTilly? A figment of Jess’s feverish brain, her alter ego, the expression of her angry or divided self? Even Jess begins to suspect her friend isn’t real, leading to TillyTilly’s revelation that Jess had a twin sister, Fern, who was stillborn. Oyeyemi ratchets up the horror as Jess begins to fear her jealous friend’s powers of invasion and destruction. Her parents respond impulsively, sometimes angrily, to the developing mayhem, leading TillyTilly to “get” Jess’s father, who falls into a depressive illness. A psychologist is brought in, but precocious Jess can see through his techniques, and TillyTilly wrecks the relationship by harming his daughter, Jess’s new friend Shivs. Narrated from Jess’s point-of-view, this ambitious psychodrama becomes repetitive in structure and can’t always sustain the adult tone. A conclusion in Nigeria attempts to knit Jess’s three worlds—the actual, the spiritual and the “Bush”—but doesn’t wholly rescue or resolve a story rich in material yet technically imbalanced.
Not enough consistent magic in this extended metaphor on cultural, social and psychological conflict.