oundaries are forever melting away in the unstable world of The Icarus Girl, 20-year-old Helen Oyeyemi's debut novel. Rooms widen and contract, floors cave in, walls "tilt sickeningly" as the protagonist, eight-year-old Jessamy, gets carried away by uncontrollable flights of fancy.
"It was a crazy, crazy time," she says over a steak sandwich and coffee in a Soho restaurant. "I was just barrelling along writing it and I wasn't really aware that I was writing a first novel. I didn't really understand what was happening. I still don't.
"It was so much fun, though. It's great when the story comes to you so easily and strongly." Her parents still haven't read the book. "I really hope they won't. I'd just be really weirded out." What do they think of her rapid success? "I don't really talk about it with them."
The story of the precocious, mentally unstable daughter of a Nigerian mother and English father, The Icarus Girl is a moving study of alienation. While holidaying in Nigeria, Jess befriends TillyTilly, a ghost (or just an imaginary friend?) who follows her to England. At first a blessing to the intensely lonely Jess, TillyTilly becomes increasingly destructive. It emerges that Jess had a twin who died at birth; in Yoruba culture, twins inhabit three worlds, the bush (a "wilderness of the mind"), the normal world and the spirit world. "The bush is a world that doesn't have the same rules and the same structure as our world," explains Oyeyemi, "and TillyTilly comes right from that world. As a kid I was scared of everything you could be scared of - ghosts, aliens, the IRA. I didn't differentiate between these different fears and the threat of TillyTilly is that she can't really be categorised."
Jess is so disturbed that her own name sounds "strange, wobbly, misinformed" to her, as she struggles to categorise not only TillyTilly but her own self. Jess's behaviour is in turn feared by her mother. Growing up in Nigerian culture, says Oyeyemi, can be "really, really oppressive. It's like something almost tugging on your coat-tails saying, 'Hey, remember you're Nigerian,' and I think that's what TillyTilly is to Jess. But you know if Jess just left it a bit, she would realise that it's OK to be Nigerian and English at the same time."
Born in Nigeria in 1984, Oyeyemi emigrated to London with her family when she was four. As a child in Lewisham, she remembers never quite finding herself represented in the books she was reading. "You can read a lot of books and the main characters are white people - especially in the classics - and after a while you forget that you're not white, almost, because it's this big pervasive culture. And then you find books like Yoruba Girl Dancing [by Simi Bedford] and you think: it's just as interesting to be Nigerian in England as it is to be white in England."
Oyeyemi is self-assured and very witty, but she says it has been a struggle to gain such confidence, "I was a real mess at school. I got a bit of a reputation for being the weird girl, the girl who'd go silent randomly and just kind of write down replies to people's questions in a book." During secondary school, she slid into depression. "I'm not entirely sure why it hit me ... just feeling really, really uncomfortable in my own skin and not wanting to communicate and just shutting down. Which is what Jess is doing at eight."
She touches obliquely on the response of her family: "In Nigeria, the problems are so much more immediate and more real, like you're not getting any electricity or any water, you actually have to struggle, and stuff. [So they think]: it's fine over here, what's your problem? And so there was just this kind of blank silence thing between us about it."
She took an overdose at 15. While off school recovering, she spent the month "reading and reading and reading, so that was kinda useful". Reluctant to take medication, she also found visits to her psychologist unhelpful: "There wasn't really very much to say, because I find it very difficult to say what's going on most of the time." It was a family holiday to Nigeria that finally set her on the road to recovery.
At Cambridge, she says, she has found a group of close friends, but adds: "One of the reasons why I might be finding it difficult to gel with my year is because I do get a bit surly and a bit inward. I think that's why, in a way, since I have no life skills, writing is a really cool thing for me to do, because I can be by myself and I don't have to kind of verbalise things. I'm terrible at verbalising things; that's exactly what it is." The core theme of The Icarus Girl is loneliness, she says. But "I've always felt happy in my own company. It's only when I get around other people that things get sticky.
"I think, basically, what I'm good for is reading - a lot.". And writing? "I think I'll always be more of a reader than a writer, definitely. There are sooo many books in the world I haven't read, sometimes I feel as if they're all piled on top of my head weighing me down and saying, hurry up." She adores magic realism. "I love taking things out of context and playing with them and chopping up rules."
She was imagining things, she says, even before she was reading things, and speaks of the sanctuary and terror of imagination. Growing up, her sister, to whom she is very close, and Chimmy - an imaginary friend - were her "chief psychics". "I can't remember when [Chimmy] first bowled on to the scene. He died when I was eight, he got run over," she says matter-of-factly. "Chimmy really straightened me out because I was such a naughty kid."
On the other hand, "I had, sort of, this weird twilight-zone made out of a pastiche of things I'd seen on TV and any horrors that I could imagine ... every now and then a new fear gets added to my repertoire." At the moment it's white-noise phenomenon [messages from dead people supposedly embedded in recordings of empty rooms]. "I don't ever want to hear a ghost, I think I'd actually just die."
Despite her impressive success so far, Oyeyemi doesn't see writing as a full-time career, thinking it would be weird not to do a "proper job". As for being categorised, as a young, non-white woman, with writers such as Zadie Smith and Monica Ali, she says this is "inevitable but lazy". She tells of how, at books parties, people ask her if she is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian author of Purple Hibiscus.
Next month Oyeyemi will have two plays published by Methuen as Juniper's Whitening; she is also working on her second novel, about Cuban mythology. It's quite a leap from The Icarus Girl, she says. "I think I'm done with loneliness. Jess's world is about this narrow," she says, enclosing a millimetre of air between her fingers, "it's a really oppressive atmosphere, but with the second novel I'm just like ... phew ... breathing - and it feels good."
· The Icarus Girl, is published by Bloomsbury on January 24, priced £16.99
© 2004 The Guardian