Monday, September 21, 2009

White is for Witching

White is for Witching / Helen Oyeyemi
Toronto: Penguin, 2009.
227 p.

I read this because I met Helen Oyeyemi once at a Canadian Book Expo and was very impressed by her quiet self-possession; also because I have her first two books in the TBR pile; but also because I saw this new & shiny one come across my desk and I thought, wow, what a great RIP challenge read!

And it was certainly perfectly suited to RIP reading. Its creepy, gothic, dark and confused tone is unsettling. Set at Silver House, which becomes a character in the book, the atmosphere is cloying and nightmarish in theme and language, the story breaking up into haunting dream segments. There is a clever use of sentence structure throughout the book; as the story moves forward, at times it jumps, disjointed, from one storyline to another via the placement of one word joining two sentences. For example:

Miranda went to see if Deme and Suryaz were alright.
"Who is it?" the girls said together, when she knocked on the attic
"It's me," she said.
They wouldn't answer after


evening Emma and I broke up. Her parents were out and her house was full of music, music and every light in every room was on. She even had fairy lights twined around table legs. "Hello, Eliot..."

The story is centred on Miranda Silver, who suffers from an eating disorder, pica. Pica is an inherited difficulty; her mother and grandmother both apparently suffered from it as well. Her mother Lily, a journalist, died on assignment in Haiti, and Miranda has never quite recovered. She stays in her room, eating chalk and plastic utensils, not tempted by her chef father's wonderful cooking. Miranda, her brother Eliot and her father Luc have all moved back to the Silver family home, Luc having the idea to turn it into a B&B. But the house itself is not too keen on the idea; it prefers to keep only its own within its walls, and forever so -- the Silver women especially. We hear bits of the story from Eliot's viewpoint; from Ore's, a college friend who fancies Miranda; from Miranda's own perspective, and finally and most chillingly, a voice we come to realize belongs to the house.

The story begins with overtones of Snow White; apples, deathly sleep and being boxed up; but then it weaves its way through a house of mirrors until we finally come to some sort of conclusion, which is not certain or absolutely clear. What exactly has occurred? Who is responsible? It's a tale of madness and of obsession and is very spooky.

While the varied narrative voices were fascinating, unfortunately, I found it a little bit too confusing; no-one is really what they seem, but the text doesn't provide enough evidence for the reader to determine who is telling the truth, or even what the whole story really is. Unreliable narrators abound, but without a ground for comparison, it was hard to tell what it was about their narrative which was unreliable. I felt that the story really came together in the second half, once Ore becomes more involved in the tale telling. Ore's comparison of Miranda's phantasmagorical Goodlady with the soucouyant that she knows through legend make things more complex, more shaded. And she is a great narrator. I would have enjoyed a little more of her grounded position in the book. Also, the housekeeper Sade is sadly underused. What a wonderful, deeply centred and powerful woman she was! I was eager to learn more about her, what her power was and where it came from, to see her overcome all the gothic phantasms in the story. Sadly, it was not to be. I'd love a whole novel about that woman!

In any case, as confused as I may have been, I was also in awe of Oyeyemi's fresh voice, her ability to see things and to express them so individually. It's amazing to me to read a book so very stylistically impressive from such a young author (who, nevertheless has 3 books published!). While I had a few difficulties with this one, reading it makes me even more eager to go back and read the two Oyeyemi novels I have waiting. Both her technique and her energetic storytelling is engaging, making for quite a compulsive read.

A few extras:
Marvellous interview at The Guardian

Spooky Trailer:

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi from Picador on Vimeo.

Other opinions:

Reviewed by Liviu at Fantasy Book Critic

Tamaranth talks about it


  1. I think that's the best book trailer I've ever seen!!

    Too bad this one wasn't wonderful, but Oyeyemi is definitely on my radar now! I love unreliable narrators. :)

  2. That was a very informative review, you have certainly got me interested, even with your reservations, from your review I am quite intrigued. Is Oyeyemi a Canadian author? I havn't come across her before. About to go follow the links, thanks.

  3. That sounds like a really good book. Thank you for drawing it to my attention - I'll keep an eye out for it.

  4. Eva- I think so too; what an excellent trailer, it captures the mood of the book. And this book was almost wonderful - I really did enjoy reading it, and must admit I was thinking of you when I read it! Think you'd like it.

    Book pusher - Oyeyemi is Nigerian & English; she went to Cambridge and had her first novel published before she was even at university!

    farmlane- it's very unusual, definitely.

  5. That's so neat that you were thinking of me! Now I want to read her even sooner! And she's Nigerian...if she's half as good as Adichie, I'm sure I'll enjoy it. :)

  6. I read The Icarus Girl a few years ago and had similar thoughts. A little confusing at times, but different enough that it was easy to overlook. I had completely forgotten about the book until a few weeks ago when I found it on a shelf...what a coincidence to see you blogging about the author, as I've never seen any other mention of her.

  7. softdrink - yes, I'd like to read Icarus Girl as I have read she uses quite a bit of Yoruba folklore in it; I'm sure it would have the same mix of confusing and wonderful ;)


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