Book Review: White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi

“But then, maybe “I don’t believe in you” is the cruelest way to kill a monster.”

Oyeyemi has been on my radar for a while, but has been languishing on my bookshelf for longer than she deserves. There were words and phrases connected to her which tantalised – fairy tale, gothic, ghost, unconventional – and it was with these in mind that I finally picked up White is for Witching – whilst Gingerbread took its place on my bookshelf!

White is for Witching greets its readers enigmatically with a series of Questions and Answers from different points of view. Those questions include

WHERE IS MIRANDA?

IS MIRANDA ALIVE?

WHAT HAPPENED TO LILY SILVER?

And we receive answers from three different points of view, all of which are conflicting. But, then what else would we expect when those points of view are so disparate? One character is Ore, a character Miranda does not meet until she heads to the University of Cambridge; another is Eliot her twin brother; and the third is the house of 29 Barton Road, Dover, itself, the home in which Miranda grew up (at least from the age of ten), in which her mother, grandmother and great grandmother had lived, and which is now run by Miranda’s father Luc as a bed and breakfast.

Yes, the house speaks. And acts. And was for me one of the more powerful – absolutely not to be mistaken for either pleasant or reliable – narrators.

And then the novel rewinds its chronology to show us the events that lead up to Miranda’s disappearance, starting… where? With Lily Silver’s death on assignment in Haiti as a photojournalist? With Miranda’s discharging herself from a five-month stay in a clinic after her mother’s death? With Anna Silver’s bringing the house to consciousness three generations before? Time in the novel seemed to overlay itself, as if everything were happening simultaneously and yet also chronologically. It was deeply unsettling – just as the women in the Silver line from Miranda to Lily to Jennifer to Anna overlapped and merged whilst also being a linear descent.

I fear this review may have been making very little sense unless you have already read the book.

So let’s try to at some clarity.

The novel opens with – and this is always a positive thing – with some of the most wonderfully described food in the opening pages of Part One, where Luc Dufresne,

wooed his wife with peach tarts he’d learnt from his pastry-maker father. The peaches fused into the dough with their skins intact, bittered and sweetened by burnt sugar.

Note to self: make a peach tart sometime!

His marriage to Lily resulted in the two twins, Eliot and Miranda, known as Miri, and they inherit the Silver House when Lily’s grandmother, Anna, dies. The family decide to move in and turn the house into a bed and breakfast whilst Lily pursues her career as a photojournalist. Miranda develops pica and starts to uncontrollably consume chalk. When Lily dies in Haiti, Miranda has a mental collapse and spends five months in an institute and the novel really begins on her discharging herself prior to getting her A-level results and heading up to Cambridge where she meets Ore, a Nigerian student. One summer she invites Ore back to the Silver House and Miranda disappears, leading us back to the opening prologue’s questions.

WHERE IS MIRANDA? IS MIRANDA ALIVE? WHAT HAPPENED TO LILY SILVER?

The novel plays fast and lose with narrative form and structure. We shift between first person narrators and a third person voice; we explore flashbacks and flashforwards; we are the reader are directly challenged by the house, demanding

WHO DO YOU BELIEVE?

Well? Is it the black girl? Or Eliot? Or me? Our talk depends upon the fact that you weren’t there and you don’t know what happened.

The house itself was for me the stand out character. There were shades of Mark Danielewsky’s House of Leaves when Deme and Suryaz, the housekeeper’s children, get stuck in the lift and reveal that “This house is bigger than you know!” Secret rooms and passageways that only the house itself can open, twisting passageways so you leave a room only to enter it again. And so deeply malevolent. This is a house that is racist, homophobic and violent desperate to inter the Silver family within its own walls in a twisted sense of love: when Miranda goes to University and returns with an adopted Nigerian fellow female student as a lover, the house declares that “I would save Miranda even if I had to break her”. And it is the house that locks away Jennifer Silver – is Oyeyemi playing with the phrase “locking away the family silver” here? – when she threatens to abandon Lily, if that is what happened: the house beautifully does not care whether you believe that, its won narrative, or the more prosaic explanation that Anna found her daughter preparing to leave and murdered her.

And the novel is deliciously creepy. The way in which Miranda’s identity is wiped clear as she comes to resemble more and more her mother and maternal ancestors, mistaken by those who love her best for her own mother is wonderfully powerful. And the novel’s house is haunted not only by the spirits of the Silver family women, but perhaps also by the Goodlady who may or may not be a vampire or Ore’s soucouyant, or perhaps Miranda herself or a figment of Miranda’s imagination. The apples and the mannequin.

There was so much here that was wonderful, but I wonder whether it was truly one story. The two parts are very distinct and – once Ore’s narration takes over, a little more traditional – and I am not quite sure that Oyeyemi succeeded in balancing those two halves of the novel, nor in balancing the Gothic and visceral elements with the political ones. It does make me wonder whether Oyeyemi might be in her heart a poet or a short story writer rather than a novelist… perhaps I would be better off picking up What is Not Yours is Not Yours rather than Gingerbread.

I have to be honest, that this was not an enjoyable book to read: it was not a light or warm novel; it was unheimlich and uncanny and unnerving, and a genuine challenge on a number of levels. It was, however, a book of immense power and of the most gorgeous and disturbing language that I have read in a long time. The physicality of some of the language of the novel was superb, even when simultaneously disturbing us.

I will certainly be returning to Oyeyemi again, but I feel that White is for Witching and the Silver family need time to settle before moving onto another novel from her.

Overall:

Characters:

Plot / Pace:

Worldbuilding:

Structure:

Language:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Picador

Date:  1st May 2009

Available: Amazon, Pan MacMillan

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