Reading What Is Not Yours – A Surreal, Poetic Journey into the Imagination of a Literary Genius


What Is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
Published on March 8, 2016
Riverhead Books
Source: I bought it

“Playful and exquisitely imagined, What Is Not Yours is an enchanting collection of linked, intertwined stories cleverly built around the idea of keys, literal and metaphorical. The key to a house, the key to a heart, the key to a secret: the keys in this extraordinary book not only unlock elements of the characters’ lives, they promise further labyrinths on the other side.” Source: Cover Blurb



bigarrure: “a medley of sundry colors running together” and/or “a discourse running oddly and fantastically, from one matter to another”

I was mesmerized by Oyeyemi’s dizzying imagination from the start. Her stories flow seamlessly and morph into unexpected shapes within the turn of a sentence. You come to think you’re reading about an abandoned baby left at a monastery, but by then you’re following the life of a laundress, getting lost in a library where books whisper and rustle in the night, and of course, there is also the beautiful garden covered in wild roses and the mountain that protects the faithful.

But it’s not just the stories-as-such that dance in these unpredictable kaleidoscopic forms. Oyeyemi’s descriptions – of phenomena, people, relations – also defy conventions and rules. In introducing a character, Oyeyemi for example does not describe their appearance, needs, aspirations, or other standard fare, but rather reveals them more subtly, by telling us that this person “wore a chain around her neck, [and] told people that she was fifty years old and gave them looks that dared them to say she was in good condition for her age” (she was 35).

Oyeyemi is, in other words, a poet. Her book has been described by more illustrious reviewers as “fever-dream” in quality (NY times book review cover blurb) – but really, this is no Timothy Leary; what this is, is vivid, completely lucid/sober and magnificently penetrating poetry. And, thankfully, through a character’s research into the term bigarrure (french), Oyeyemi offers us a vital clue to unpacking her style, because the orchestra of images she conducts is precisely both “a medley of sundry colors running together” and/or “a discourse running oddly and fantastically, from one matter to another.”

Did I enjoy this book? Well, while I loved being swept off my feet and carried along on a surreal journey into creative genius, I can’t say I enjoyed being pulled under by the currents. At times, I was drowning – I had absolutely no way to grasp either what was happening or the meaning behind a gesture, a character, the entire story. And I know that’s the beauty of such genius – it leads you to ask your own questions. But still, at times I felt so unmoored I lost interest, and was not very compelled to continue- you could say I was bored. But, as any teacher knows, boredom is most often a symptom of incomprehension, for which scaffolding is critical! Which means, I suppose, that I need to start reading poetry (I should! I’ve been wanting to! I know it’s so critical…) And perhaps some books on poetry. At some point after that, I will make plans to revisit this book.

That said, I can absolutely see why this book is one which is raved about by the critics but maybe not as highly regarded by the rest of the public. I personally did not enjoy it, because put simply, this is top-tier mind-blowing poetry, and, as a novice poetry-reader, I didn’t “get” much of it (my ultimate goal in life is to shed my scientific training and critical mindset and be able to fully appreciate art and poetry in their sensuous, embodied splendor. I am not even close to that now btw).

Still, my rating, based on my appreciation of Oyeyemi as an artist, cannot be less than a 5. I highly recommend this if you like thoughtful books, and especially if you appreciate poetry!


  1. I just picked this up from the library today! I didn’t think it was possible to be more excited to dive in, but now I am. Have you read any of her other works? Interested to see how this one compares.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This was my first Oyeyemi, so I will be very excited to read your review, especially if you have some other points of reference with her work! I will definitely be seeking her out again. I’m excited for you – Yay 🙂 – and looking forward to your thoughts on it!

      Liked by 1 person

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