Parasol Against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi: ‘How come every time I look at this book it’s become another book?!’  

Cover image for Parasol Against the Axe by Helen OyeyemiI knew I wouldn’t be in for a straightforward piece of linear narrative when I was pitched Helen Oyeyemi’s Parasol Against the Axe but I hadn’t realised that her adopted home city is Prague, the narrator of her new novel which sees a hen party descend on the city. Hardly an unusual event except that one of the group has taken a copy of a most unusual book about Prague, given to her by her young son, and another has turned down her invitation but makes a distinctly unfriendly appearance. Pointless trying to offer much of synopsis for Oyeyemi’s discursive, shapeshifting novel but below are the bare bones of it.

They say that Prague will glide along the bank of the Vltava for eternity, the heart of a nation that is itself the restless heart of a continent. Well, yes, please. That would of course be my wish: unchanging change.

Hero Tojosa has accepted Sofi’s marriage invitation despite their estrangement. She’s keen to get away from the many couriers attempting to deliver a letter from a man she featured in her book written under the pseudonym Dorothea Gilmartin, the name adopted by Thea long before she and Hero met, escaping the connection with her mother’s series of children’s books addressed to her daughter. Hero, Sofi and Thea were once close friends and associates. Despite Thea’s turning down of Sofi’s invitation, Hero is convinced she saw her at the airport. Hero checks into the quaint bed and breakfast which seems oddly deserted given it’s supposed to be fully booked. She reads the copy of Paradoxical Undressing Jerome tracked down for her, puzzled that each time she picks it up the opening chapter seems to be about something entirely different. As the next few days progress, things become ever more fantastical until the novel draws to a close with Hero presented with a series of delicious ice creams but not a solution to the riddle of the book.

Pick ten people, tell each of ‘em the same thing – use exactly the same wording each time, then go back and ask of the ten what you told ‘em. It’s guaranteed you’ll hear ten things you never fuckin’ said. Hardly anybody talks about what it is they’ve actually heard or read; we only say what we were thinking about when someone was trying to talk to us.

Where to start with this inventive, playful novel narrated by Oyeyemi’s beloved city? There are so many stories spun that it’s hard to keep up, but one way is just to go along for the ride first time around then think about reading it again. Prague guides us through her own streets, telling the stories of the novel’s principal players leaving a multitude of loose ends untied. Oyeyemi slips in episodes from city’s history via the endlessly morphing Paradoxical Undressing, from sixteenth-century nobility to Second World War taxi dancers to the Communist ‘60s although not in that order. Every reader, it seems, has a very different experience of the book, rather like readers will with Oyeyemi’s, I suspect. I wasn’t at all sure at the beginning of her novel but ended up loving it. Best be prepared for some mystification if you decide to give it a try; all part of the fun for me.

Faber & Faber: London 9780571366620 272 pages Hardback

26 thoughts on “Parasol Against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi: ‘How come every time I look at this book it’s become another book?!’  ”

  1. You’ve tempted me. I don’t know Prague so might be at a slight disadvantage. But I’m currently reading – and enjoying – Cuddy, so might need to have a couple of – how shall I say?- straightforward books in between.

  2. I saw this advertised and wasn’t sure if I would/should read it. Helen Oyeyemi is such an interesting writer, I have loved her work but I also think she is too clever for me I tried and failed to read Peaces when it came out though I have been thinking of trying it again. Have you read it? If yes how does it compare to this? I am so tempted, it sounds such a fun novel, but still concerned my increasingly feeble brain won’t be up to it.

  3. Ooh I didn’t know Oyeyemi had a new one out. I’ve read everything by her, mostly on the strength of absolutely loving Boy, Snow, Bird, but I am finding that I’m increasingly baffled by them. Good to know you found this one a success.

  4. This sounds tremendously Calvino-y, in a good way (that tricksy book-that-keeps-being-about-different-things is very If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler).

  5. So I misread your statement as saying that a hen partly (not party) descended on a city, and that seemed perfectly normal in an Oyeyemi way. I’ve read four, I think, and I wouldn’t miiiind reading another but, at the same time, I’m not rushing either. Are there authors that have fallen in that category for you, too?

  6. I have yet to read anything by Helen Oyeyemi, and for some reason this wasn’t the kind of novel I thought she wrote, although I don’t really know what I did expect. This does sound unusual and certainly inventive.

Leave a comment ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.