Francesca Peacock

The perils of Prague: Parasol Against the Axe, by Helen Oyeyemi, reviewed

Three women with a criminal past meet for a weekend hen party – but any hopes of enjoying themselves are soon dashed

Helen Oyeyemi. [Credit: Katerina Janišová]

An informal survey of friends, family, acquaintances and previous reviews suggests that the word most usually associated with Helen Oyeyemi’s fiction is ‘weird’. The author of eight novels has hardly shied away from unconventional storytelling, with books about everything from Brexit-through-biscuits (Gingerbread, 2019) to magical trains and a pet mongoose (Peaces, 2021). Her style is one of high and low: song lyrics jumbled up with references to medieval literature; nods to Shakespeare next to 1980s films. The result is either lauded – Oyeyemi was on the 2013 Granta list of best young novelists and her short story collection won a PEN award – or hated. In a TLS review, the novelist Claire Lowdon likened reading Peaces to ‘babysitting an over-indulged child’.

Oyeyemi seems gloriously unfazed by such reactions. Parasol Against the Axe opens with what appears to be a vignette from modern life: ‘I found myself a member of a WhatsApp group that seemed to have been set up as a safe space for sharing complaints about the capital city of Czechia.’ But it quickly gets stranger. The narrator, who reads these complaints and writes an irate response, is Prague itself. In Oyeyemi’s world, the city is sentient – and mischievous. It is responsible for uniting lovers in surprise weddings (‘Don’t worry about it. Just enjoy’) and tearing them apart; for harbouring those on the run or for leading fugitives straight to the police.

In this tricksy capital, three friends come together for a hen weekend: an author, Hero Tojosoa; a hitwoman, Dorothea Gilmartin (in an Oyeyemi-ish twist, she has borrowed Hero’s pen name); and a theatre set designer, Sofie Cibulkova. But there are no boozy nights out and penis-shaped straws here. The women have previously been involved in a criminal trio, and the weekend is spent fending off all manner of threats – from violent attacks to unusually persistent delivery drivers.

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