By Helen Oyeyemi
When I heard that Oyeyemi was a hot young British writer whose debut novel, about a little girl wrestling with the supernatural, was garnering critical attention, I had to check it out.
Jessamy Wuraola Harrison is a quiet, precocious 8-year-old girl living in a London suburb. Half Nigerian and half British, she’s caught between two worlds in more ways than one. Somewhat introverted and strange, Jess prefers spending time alone talking to herself in a closet, or personally annotating published books, rather than playing with friends. The turning point is when her parents bring Jess along to visit her mother’s family in Nigeria. In the abandoned servants quarters on her grandfather’s property, Jess meets a mysterious young girl named Titiola. Since Jess has trouble pronouncing it, she calls her TillyTilly, and the two girls become fast friends. Not only does TillyTilly like Jess just the way she is, she has a knack for sneaking into places that are locked or forbidden, like Jess’ grandfather’s library or an abandoned playground. One day, Tilly asks Jess:
‘Would you like to be like me? Like, be able to do the things I do, I mean?’
Jess nodded so hard she felt as if her brains were bouncing about inside her head. Tilly nodded too, and Jess briefly got that odd feeling again that her actions were being mirrored…
‘Don’t worry about it,’ she said. ‘You’ll see me again.’
Eventually Jess has to return to London and says a tearful goodbye to TillyTilly, thinking she’ll never see her again. But a few weeks later, her faraway friend magically shows up at her doorstep. Sure enough, this TillyTilly isn't quite who she appears to be, being more than just an ordinary ‘imaginary’ friend. The mixed heritage coming-of-age portrait of a girl gradually morphs into a ghost story, but since this is supposed to be a modern Penguin novel, the narrative gets quite creepy, but never really downright scary. But still, having a supernatural friend eventually takes a psychological toll, and Jess soon becomes a problem child. She always had difficulty making friends, but now she’s getting into fights and having screaming tantrums at school. As TillyTilly gradually insinuates herself into Jess’ life, Jess slowly realizes how little control she has over her so-called friend, and most importantly, her own life.
She had just realized with stunning clarity that she was the only person who saw TillyTilly. She put a hand to her mouth as she tried to sort this out in her mind. She didn’t know why it hadn’t occurred to her before. TillyTilly had not met anyone in her family, no one had met her, and she refused to meet anyone. And even when Jess was with TillyTilly, never mind that people couldn’t see Jess; the most noticeable thing was that they couldn’t see TillyTilly. She suddenly felt very small and a little bit scared. Is TillyTilly… real?
Finally TillyTilly confesses to Jess who she really is… sort of. It has to do with a long buried family secret, and when Jess reveals to her mother what she knows, yet shouldn't know, she freaks out big time:
Sarah began rambling, her voice trembling: ‘Three worlds! Jess lives in three worlds. She lives in this world, and she lives in the spirit world, and she lives in the Bush. She’s abiku, she always would have known! The spirits tell her things, Fern tells her things. We should’ve… oh, oh… Mama! Mummy-mi, help me…’
Not realizing that Tilly is trying to set her against her mother, Jess realizes too late what TillyTilly is really after…. This is where the story gets creepy. Like when Jess starts hiding in bed because a strange creature with very long arms keeps visiting her at night. Or when TillyTilly tells Jess she’s going to ‘get’ anybody that tries to get in 'their' way, or how she coyly suggests to Jess that they swap places: ‘you’ll be me for a little bit, Jessy, and I’m going to be you!’. Or when Jess convinces her only human friend Siobhan to ‘meet’ TillyTilly: ‘from the moment that Tilly had come into the room, Shivs had felt a … badness. It was the only way to describe it; it was like being sick and hearing rattling in her head as well, slowly building in pressure.’
Though the novel was very good and had many captivating and disturbing moments, at times it did come across as if it was written by a young writer (I believe Oyeyemi was only 20 when the book was published). The world of young girlhood is realistically portrayed, but the precociously gifted child, mature and articulate beyond her years, is such an over-abused theme, and there were several moments where I questioned the credibility of Jess’ thoughts and dialogue. The second trip to Nigeria felt very rushed, and there wasn’t enough time spent with the Nigerian family stepping in to deal with the restless spirit of TillyTilly. The ending also lacked a satisfying resolution, like a much-needed symbolic exorcism, and seemed to cop out with a deliberately ambiguous ending. This could have been a truly exciting story of possession if it didn't have such lofty ambitions of being a 'serious' novel. This is still quite an accomplished story for a young writer, and overall is worth checking out.