A Shape-Shifting Novel About the Power of Stories


Helen Oyeyemi is a literary pied piper — her voice is the kind that readers gamely follow into the most bewildering and unnerving of situations. Take, for instance, the racist house bent on harming its nonwhite inhabitants in her 2009 novel, “White Is for Witching,” or the exploitative theme park where farm girls sell gingerbread and nostalgic visions of agrarian life in her 2019 book, “Gingerbread.” In this new novel, “Parasol Against the Axe,” Oyeyemi takes us to … Prague?

Yes, Prague. Oyeyemi has lived there since 2014. But the novel’s Prague is a strange, shifting mass of forms, at once the chaotic narrator of “Parasol Against the Axe” and also several mysterious characters within it, including a forgetful “earthen-toned” man who speaks Malagasy and someone dressed in a costume of a Czech cartoon mole named Krtek.

Prague also seems to be the narrative force behind a book called “Paradoxical Undressing,” whose contents change every time the novel’s characters try to read it, and whose short stories — set in different periods of Prague’s history — appear in lengthy excerpts scattered throughout “Parasol.” When a character describes the city as “a dissociative state” late in the novel, the phrase struck me as downright comforting. Finally, an apt summation of whatever I’d been living through for the previous 249 pages. Prague may not be a city at all, Oyeyemi suggests. It’s something that happens to you.

Prague certainly happens to Hero Tojosoa, the book’s protagonist, who arrives in town for her friend Sofie’s bachelorette weekend. She doesn’t walk so much as hurtle through the city. “Each stop seemed to send her sailing onward to the next,” Oyeyemi writes of Hero’s tour of the capital. Time skips and speeds forward, yanking Hero out of scenes and plunging her into entirely unrelated ones. She hears her own disembodied voice one night in her bed-and-breakfast, then finds a marriage certificate with her name on it. “I don’t think you were meant to see this yet,” the owner of the bed-and-breakfast tells her. Hero, we discern, isn’t actually the hero of this story; the agency usually afforded to protagonists has been stripped from her. The story itself is calling the shots.

Then there’s “Paradoxical Undressing,” which Hero begins reading to pass the time on her trip. It begins with a tale-within-a-tale about a nobleman in the 16th-century court of Rudolf II, but breaks off to address Hero personally. Other characters read stories that involve Jewish taxi dancers under German occupation in 1943, or fringe art on the city’s subways in 2016. These narrative fragments are easily the most riveting in the book; they’re romps that let us in on delicious secrets about Prague’s inner nature or poignantly illustrate human idiosyncrasy against the weight of history. Some are simply so complete in their strangeness that one can’t help reading them with a sense of awe: Where did this even come from?

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