Monday, 10 May 2010

Book Review: White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

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"In a vast, mysterious house on the cliffs near Dover, the Silver family is reeling from the hole punched into its heart. Lily is gone and her twins, Miranda and Eliot, and her husband, the gentle Luc, mourn her absence with unspoken intensity. All is not well with the house, either, which creaks and grumbles and malignly confuses visitors in its mazy rooms, forcing winter apples in the garden when the branches should be bare. Generations of women inhabit its walls. And Miranda, with her new appetite for chalk and her keen sense for spirits, is more attuned to them than she is to her brother and father. She is leaving them slowly – slipping away from them – and when one dark night she vanishes entirely, the survivors are left to tell her story."

Everything about Helen Oyeyemi's third novel screams divisiveness. White is for Witching is the sort of novel you'd think you would either love or hate: dense, difficult and deliberately disjointed, hardly more than 200 pages long and yet told from the perspectives of four dramatically different narrators - one clinically insane and another inanimate - it's a haunted house story second and a unapologetically literary novel first. Breathlessly poetic at times, though often so ethereal as to be frustratingly obfuscative, Oyeyemi's remarkable voice distinguishes White is for Witching from the countless other genre efforts to touch on similar territory. And yet I didn't love this book. Nor did I hate it.

Miranda and Elliot are twins in their late teens living in a stark gothic house in Dover that's been in their family for four generations. Inseparable until their quirky photo-journalist mother dies abroad on assignment, Miranda takes her loss to heart. "She won't forget or recover, she is inconsolable," as her brother puts it, and when Miranda is discharged from the mental hospital she had checked into after the tragedy, the distance between them is palpable. Elliot looks ahead; Miranda looks back. Her efforts to move on - in her state of body and mind, her further education and her relationships - are lamentably lackadaisical, no matter her determination. Because something, some thing, is holding her back. Wherever she goes, the house is with her...

The seeds of a great, creepy tale are all sown early on, but a tremendously promising start does not stop White is for Witching from losing any sense of forward motion in the going thereafter. Oyeyemi's idiosyncratic narrative techniques, which to begin with allude and collude tantalisingly, gradually come to overpower the tale, to manhandle its development in order to properly showcase a few neat literary tricks. But the cost of the author's protracted dalliance is substantial: halfway through this short novel, there's been so little movement in terms of character, plot and conflict that the reader's very investment in any of the aforementioned elements is called into question.

Thankfully, the pace picks up when Miranda starts her first semester at Cambridge. Oyeyemi introduces a new narrator for these passages, and Ore functions admirably both as a device to imbue much-needed context on all the vague craziness of White is for Witching's first half and as a character in her own right. Ore's more earthly presence means that the going, tough and sinewy to start with, gets markedly easier after her introduction. It's only a pity that Oyeyemi so delays her arrival.

What White is for Witching is, undeniably, is funny. The interplay between Elliot and his sister is superb, snappy and smart, revealing character and history absent in Oyeyemi's somewhat indulgent exposition; and Miranda's pica, a condition that compels her to gobble chalk and plastic in favour of the sumptuous treats her gentle father prepares, makes for a few particularly memorable moments. Oyeyemi has a wonderfully wicked sense of humour that lifts the dreary proceedings from the dark and the deathly towards something altogether lighter and more pleasant.

White is for Witching has a chilling and atmospheric, if rather diminutive narrative at its heart, but its greatest failing is that the author seems substantially more interested in storytelling than story, and though the latter half of Oyeyemi's third novel improves in that regard, its early-going is enough of a trial, I fear, to dissuade many readers. Literary smarts do not in themselves a great novel make, and White is for Witching could have done with more attention paid to the basic elements underpinning what amounts, ultimately, to much ado about very little. That said, if you have the head for it, there's every chance you'll love this book - or else despise it. Would that had I managed to muster such extremes of feeling in either direction myself...


White is for Witching
by Helen Oyeyemi
April 2010, Picador

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