White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

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White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Mongredien
Reviewed by Sue Mongredien
Summary: An evocative, gothic story full of magic and mystery.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: May 2009
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-0330458146

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All is not well in the large, mysterious house in Dover which is home to Miranda Silver and her family. Her mother Lily has come to a violent end in Haiti, and Miranda, her twin brother Eliot and their father Luc are all trying to come to terms with their loss. Miranda's suffering is physical as well as emotional – like her mother and grandmother before her, she has a condition called pica, an abnormal craving to ingest substances such as clay, dirt or hair. In Miranda's case, she craves chalk and plastic, squirreling supplies away in her bedroom, known to the family as the 'psychomantium' (a dark room containing a mirror, in which a person can see visions) and wrestling to control her appetite by alternately starving and gorging herself.

The novel begins with a mystery – where is Miranda? Is she alive? What happened to her? A jumble of voices (including that of the house) take turns to narrate the events leading up to Miranda's disappearance, and we piece together her breakdown, and discover some of the secrets contained within the house's walls. As well as her pica, Miranda also hears voices and sees visions of her ancestors, and blames herself for her mother's death. She is unbalanced and vulnerable, leaning on her brother and father for support, scared and confused as to what is happening to her. She manages to leave the house, briefly, for student life in Cambridge, but ultimately, the house is too strong a force, possessed as it seems to be by her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, and she finds herself pulled back, powerless to resist.

The plot moves slowly – there isn't a great deal of action – but much of it is dominated by the female characters. Eliot and Luc are pretty ineffectual characters and seem peripheral; the women on the other hand, are strong, mysterious and complicated – the witches of the title. Despite the slow pace, the novel builds to some memorably chilling scenes, particularly when Ore, Miranda's friend and lover, visits the house – really wonderful gothic writing, the stuff of nightmares.

There is much fairy-tale imagery within the text – the absent mother, poisoned apples, the magic between twins, as well as the terrifying soucouyant which Ore tries to banish, and the 'juju' feared by Sade, the eccentric housekeeper. We live in a fairy-tale, Miranda says to her brother at one point, and you do get the feeling that anything might happen. There are also big themes such as incomers and outsiders (tying in perfectly with the Dover setting), grief and love.

This is the first book I've read by Helen Oyeyemi and I was instantly struck by her beautiful, evocative writing. The opening segment reads like a poem, and I found myself bewitched by the author's inventive, lyrical imagery and style throughout. I particularly liked the use of the house as a narrator especially as we quickly discover its God-like status and powers, meting out harsh punishments and terrifying some who enter its space, yet protecting other inhabitants with all sorts of ingenious methods. I also loved the playful mingling of voices throughout the story. Having said that, I was ultimately left feeling rather cold by this novel – I didn't warm to any of the characters, let alone relate to any of them – and while I appreciated the clever structure of this story and enjoyed the layers of myth and magic, I never truly engaged with the work and didn't feel gripped.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Buy White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi at Amazon.com.


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Jill Murphy said:

Oh, a shame it didn't grip you. I do love this kind of self-conscious styling - and enjoy referencing and appreciating image - but it does seem to create a big conflict between technique and heart. I always want to call three cheers for the bravura of the attempt, but not quite as much as I feel regretful for the lack of engagement.