What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi: A Review

A few weeks ago, I walked into my favourite bookshop and was immediately struck by the sight of a book with no hard spine (that’s right, no spine), the cover title shining bright and gold across the image of a hand sketched rose. Between the openness of the spine and the beauty of its cover, I couldn’t help but pick it up. I know we are told not to judge a book by its cover, but if it was the cover that made me pick up this book and buy it I am very glad it did, for it is easily the best book I have read so far this year.

Helen Oyeyemi’s collection of short stories What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a masterpiece of modern writing. Moving between stories about books and roses, women who inherit libraries, puppets with deeply philosophical internal lives, parents and stepparents of teenage fangirls, haunting relationship studies and diaries that were never meant to be opened, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, delves into a deep understanding of the ways in which we like to imagine our lives colliding with the fantastical and fairytale-like world of our imagination.

On the back of my copy sits a quote from Ali Smith, saying that Oyeyemi is “a writer of sentences so elegant that they gleam” and I cannot imagine a more perfect way of describing Oyeyemi’s writing. The richness of her language pulls you in and envelopes you without hesitation. The deftness with which Oyeyemi writes the fullness of her imagination across the page strikes me as one of the most accomplished feats in contemporary English-language literature.

I think my favourite of the stories contained within this collection are the first “Books and Roses” and last “If a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that don’t you think”, framing the collection with a strange sense of myth and magic contained within the regular spaces of life, libraries and offices respectively. Although, to be able to pull favourites from this collection is extremely difficult. Each short story is prefaced with beautiful titles, titles that grasp your curiosity and make you feel like you are reading a short poem as you begin. For a collection of short stories, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours sometimes feels more like a complex poetic novel-like concoction, with minor characters from earlier stories reappearing and toying with the characters in later stories. In a way, there is a sense of a history wrapped around the characters in these stories that only becomes more complex and interesting as the stories progress. The ultra-realist and hyper-imagined elements of these stories come together brilliantly in the shared universe of Helen Oyeyemi’s collection.

After reading this collection, I will admit, I rushed out to get my hands on more of Oyeyemi’s work, to dive back into the gleaming imaginative style she so fantastically brings to life. As a reader, I am in awe of her masterful command of language and storytelling. As a writer, I am extremely jealous.

I also have to commend the team who worked on the construction and publication of this collection of Helen Oyeyemi’s work. The physical reading experience was amazing, the spinelessness of the book adding just the right quirk to complement Oyeyemi’s writing, and making for a wonderful tactile reading experience.

I cannot recommend this collection enough to anyone even remotely interested in unique, beautiful, and skilfully executed writing. If you love delving into rich honey language and seeing imagination collide with the everyday, go and get your hands on a copy right now. You won’t regret it!


What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is available in all good bookstores.

As always, INWORDSANDINK encourages its readers to shop at and support their local independent bookstores.

© Hayley New 2016


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