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White is for Witching

White is for Witching

Author:            Helen Oyeyemi

Reviewer:      Tola Ositelu


 A Return to Form
Tola Ositelu
Tola Ositelu
was born
in London to Nigerian and Ghanaian parents. She studied Law at University and is currently a solicitor in England.

White is for Witching is the third novel from the bright, young and acclaimed Helen Oyeyemi. Keeping to the supernatural theme of which Oyeyemi is very fond, the story follows the lives of twins Eliot and Miranda Silver and their father Luc Dufresne, after the brutal death of their mother, Lily, whilst she is working overseas.

The death of Lily proves to be something of a Pandora’s Box and as each member of the family try to come to terms with it, we discover there are some destructive forces at work to exploit their grief – particularly that of Miranda. The family home in Dover, Grandmother Anna’s inheritance to Lily, is also a guesthouse run by Luc. The story is told from multiple perspectives; that of Eliot, Ore Lind (Miranda’s love interest) and the House itself, 29 Barton Road. Eliot looks on in painful astonishment as his sister, an extension of himself and the centre of his world, wastes away due to anorexia and another peculiar eating disorder: pica – an appetite for otherwise inedible objects.

Ore befriends Miranda at Cambridge University only to become fixated with her. As in Oyeyemi’s debut The Icarus Girl there is something sinister lurking in the background, threatening to punish all those who come between it and the focus of its jealous obsession. This time it’s the House -which has plans to make sure Miranda can never truly escape its hold on her life, as it has done with the three generations of Silver females that preceded her.

I approached this novel with fascination. It was going to be the strongest indicator so far of what kind of writer Oyeyemi is. Would she once again display the spark of genius she showed in The Icarus Girl or would she follow the ornate but desultory path of The Opposite House? The third book lies somewhere in the middle. All of the good features of Oyeyemi’s writing remain. Ever a maestro of poetic prose, with Oyeyemi’s pen, the English language morphs into something greater than the sum of all its parts. She plucks similes and metaphors from the air so delightful to read that they perhaps deserve a book all to themselves. She finds a million and one ways to convey aspects of the quotidian that would otherwise be dull in the hands of a lesser writer.

‘...He was old enough to shave but young enough to still be excited about shaving and thus meticulous’
‘Sylvie (Luc’s mother) is a black dress, perfumed scarves, iron posture and whatever else turns a person into an atmosphere...’
‘...Those first few weeks after Lily’s death...Eliot noticed Luc more, as an eye does when something is removed from the picture and the image is reduced to its flaw, the line where the whole is disrupted...’

However the author is occasionally too self-indulgent and stops making sense altogether...
‘...The place (Miranda’s psychomantium) was almost friendly, like being carried on salt water towards yourself...’

Come again?

All three of Oyeyemi’s novels have certain themes in common. There’s the all-enveloping influence of strong matriarchal figures – the difference in WifW being that the influence lies beyond the grave. Once again Oyeyemi is not afraid to tackle the issue of mental illness and its link, if any, to the negative supernatural. Miss Oyeyemi flirted with the subject of eating disorders in The Opposite House but she gives it her full attention in WifW.

The Pica that afflicts Miranda has been in her mother’s side of the family for generations; only to be exacerbated by the death of Lily. Another recurring theme of all the author’s books so far is that of identity surrounding one’s ethnicity. Oyeyemi should be highly commended for not feeling obligated to make the two main protagonists of the same heritage as herself. She’s not playing it safe and more power to her. Anglo-Franco Miranda is baffled by Sade, the guesthouse’s Yoruba maid; her juju concoctions and her enjoyment of Nollywood which lack artistic merit as far as Miss Silver is concerned.

Like any good writer Oyeyemi can step out of herself to see facets of her own culture from a different angle. She can get into the head of a middle-aged European male as easily as she can that of a teenage African girl. Whichever voice she chooses to make a comment on contemporary society, she’s equally convincing. In addition, the author incorporates so organically her research into the various locations in which the book is set. The Devon of White is for Witching has experienced a large influx of refugees from Central/Eastern Europe. One in particular, Tijana harbours seething resentment towards Miranda and we never really get to the bottom of it. In truth I think there were some missed opportunities for Oyeyemi to do something more with this character.

There is also the presence of Ore, who Oyeyemi uses as the proverbial stone to kill numerous birds. She’s of Nigerian heritage but her adoptive parents are the very English Mr and Mrs Lind, from Kent. Ore appears to be resentful of her Nigerian roots perhaps because it is this factor that makes it so glaringly obvious that she is not the biological child of her parents. Eliot, like his sister (the two being of like mind) is magnetised by the stunning Ore; alas she is only interested in romancing fellow females – such as Miranda. Miranda herself is going through that moment in her teens when she’s deciding which of the sexes float her boat. There are even allusions to incestuous feelings between her and Eliot.

This is a rather cynical approach to the relationship by the author and buys too much into the theory that a man and a woman cannot be close without sexual tension. Again, struggling with sexuality is a theme Oyeyemi has explored in her previous book. However trying to make Ore a walking embodiment of all western social minorities reads too much like a gimmick. Up until when Miranda goes off to University and Miss Lind makes an appearance in earnest, WifW is at times a very engaging, fluid read. However Miranda and Ore’s romantic entanglement slows things right down, adding little to the story and an unnecessary distraction. It is clear that Miranda had some, albeit inadvertent, supernatural influence over Ore but this effect could have been achieved if the two girls were merely close friends.

Not since her first novel has Oyeyemi managed to get the cohesion quite right between the natural and surreal. In The Icarus Girl the surreal elements of the book were written in a less self-conscious way. Before you realise it the reader is drawn into some peculiar incident and Oyeyemi does it with such dexterity that it seems perfectly plausible. As main character, Jessamy Harrison, loses a grip on her 8-year-old reality, so do we. You don’t feel detached from her world because you are part of it. Perhaps this is because the story leant to the supernatural more. In both The Opposite House and White is for Witching it feels like the reader is a lot more distanced from the ‘weird’.

That said, WifW has a more coherent narrative than its predecessor and is altogether something of a return to form for Oyeyemi. Everything comes full circle by the novel’s denouement and in a coup-de-theatre similar to the film ‘The Sixth Sense’ you are forced to revisit the beginning of the book to make better sense of what you have just read. True, you know from the start what happens at the end but it’s interesting to read how. This redeemed WifW for me, after it had lost its way somewhere in the middle.

I’m beginning to think Miss Oyeyemi is a victim of her own success. Right or wrong, I’m still waiting for her to produce something as accomplished as her debut which might happen –or it might not. Nevertheless unlike The Opposite House, WifW has a clearer sense of direction and most of the main characters are fully formed and rich in depth. It is undeniable that Oyeyemi is an important voice in contemporary British literature, one that it will be difficult to ignore.


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