Munich in English - selected by independent Locals for Cosmopolitans, Newcomers and Residents - since 1989

back to overview

March 2005

First Words

Two Glittering Debut Novels

By Helen Oyeyemi
Bloomsbury, 2005

Helen Oyeyemi wrote The Icarus Girl when she was just 18 and taking her A-levels, although it started life as a short story. Seeking advice on how to develop her literary style, Oyeyemi e-mailed her work to a literary agent, who, instead of sending her away with some tips, spotted her talent and offered to represent her. Her parents knew nothing about the novel, despite the fact that she was working on their computer, until she signed a two-book deal with Bloomsbury for a reported £400,000 advance. It says a lot about Oyeyemi’s intelligence that she could write an extraordinary debut novel in six months, get three A-grades with minimal revision and be accepted at Cambridge, where she is in her first year of a social and political sciences degree.

The Icarus Girl focuses on intelligent but troubled eight-year-old Jessamy Harrison. Jess possesses an extraordinary and powerful imagination, and spends hours reading Shakespeare, writing haikus and hiding in the dark warmth of the airing cupboard. The daughter of a British father and a Nigerian mother, she has always felt like a misfit. Her regular frenzied screaming fits ensure that she does not have any friends at school. Her parents, as a last resort, try to cure her of her bad behavior by taking her to visit relatives in Nigeria. It is here that she meets Titiola, or TillyTilly, a ghost that only she can see. TillyTilly soon becomes a major part of Jess’s life, and she even appears back in England. At first TillyTilly is perfect for Jess—she is the first person to understand and be a friend to her—but gradually the ghost’s visits become more disturbing. This culminates with TillyTilly revealing that Jess had a stillborn twin, which explains her constant feeling of loneliness, and that she intends to be the sister Jess never had. From here, the novel takes a sinister turn.

This book is strikingly original, if not in its themes then in Oyeyemi’s confident and lyrical style. It would be an impressive debut novel of any writer, but the fact that the author was so young when she wrote it, and didn’t even intend to write a novel, is truly remarkable.

By David Bezmozgis
Jonathan Cape, 2004

David Bezmozgis became something of an overnight star in the United States and Canada. This was because his stories were published in three of the most important magazines for fiction lovers—the New Yorker, Harper’s and Zoetrope. It doesn’t take long to understand why the stories were so well received. Natasha is a captivating debut collection. Not without reason Bezmozgis calls his work “autobiographical fiction”: like the author, the protagonist, Mark Berman, emigrated with his parents from Latvia to Toronto in 1980. The seven short stories, which were shortlisted for the recent Guardian First Book Award, follow Mark through childhood and adolescence into adulthood.

The first story, Tapka, in which we are introduced to the family on their arrival in Toronto, is both the most original and touching of the seven stories. Mark tells of the difficulties of learning English, although as a child, he learned much quicker than his parents. He says: “By the end of May I could sing the ABC song. Television taught me to say ‘What’s up, Doc?’ and ‘super-duper.’ The playground introduced me to ‘shithead,’ ‘mental case,’ and ‘gaylord,’ and I sought every opportunity to apply my new knowledge.” Tapka is written with the quiet sensitivity that typifies the entire collection.

Bezmozgis’ prose is funny, but it also rings true. He lends insight into his culture and the pain and joys of immigration. Throughout the stories, which manage to be moving without drifting into excess sentimentality, Mark Berman is attempting to understand both his new world and that of his parents. Bezmozgis’ poignant and thought-provoking style is mature beyond his 32 years, and the stories are extremely well crafted—the spare prose and his eye for detail make Natasha comparable with the best of minimalist writing. Each of the individual stories functions well on its own, but with their loose connections, they are even better as a collection. By the end of the book, the reader feels like he knows the Bermans, and will most likely feel real affection towards the family. Indeed, many of those who have read this debut work are waiting in anticipation of Bezmozgis’ next. <<<

tell a friend