A collection of weird and fantastical short stories, Jhalak Prize shortlisted Speak Gigantular is a captivating read. Usually I like to take my time with short stories, reading only a couple at a time, but Okojie’s collection sucked me in and I had to stop myself from reading the entire book in one day.
Most of the stories are London based, but Okojie sets several of her tales abroad. One of my favourites, Animal Parts, reminded me of a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. Set in a Danish town, it is about a young boy who grows a tail. He and his mother live alone, ostracised by the rest of the community:
As Henri grew older it became increasingly apparent that Ann was not going to be able to keep his tail a secret from the townsfolk. As uninhibited and unashamed as any child should be, Henri ran with oblivious abandon, not aware that words were forming against him, even at his tender young age. That minds were closing firmly, decidedly, and that he was not destined to enjoy his worry-free existence much beyond his early childhood years.
I loved this story, though its scenes of bullying were brutal. It was fantastical while still being relatable to everyday life. Other favourites were Walk With Sleep, set in the tunnels of the London Underground, where ghosts wander in limbo, Nadine which was beautifully and awfully tragic, and Why is Pepe Canary Yellow? – at turns hilarious and then incredibly sad – about a bank robber who wears a chicken costume to hold up banks, persuading the staff to help him and then leaving copies of his favourite recipes behind.
I did feel that a couple of the stories were so abstract that I struggled to engage with them. For me to love magic realism, I need a certain level of reality in there so that I can ground myself. This is just my personal feeling, and others may love these weirder stories even more because of their disorienting feel, but I found myself skimming over the words at times because I was so unsure of what was actually going on.
This is an impressive collection and Okojie’s use of language is inventive. The way she sets scenes, particularly when describing Cape Verde or Lisbon, less familiar locations, is vibrant. Okojie has compiled a book that is most definitely original.