Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

White Is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

untitled The mazy house on the cliffs near Dover has been home to generations of Silver women – and it never lets them go. Reeling from the sudden death of her mother Lily, Miranda Silver is newly resident, young and bright and vulnerable. In this place where apples grow in the depths of winter and secret floors are revealed in the night, she starts to eat chalk and to hear voices. As slowly she too begins to disappear, her twin brother Eliot and her best friend Ore are left asking Where is Miranda? But only the house has the answer, and in this spine-tingling tale of magic and memory, the house isn’t telling…

This is a bewildering and poetic piece of fiction. Living in a malevolent house on the cliffs near Dover, twins Miranda (Miri) and Eliot Silver deal with the death of their mother, Lily, in Haiti. Miri also has to deal with her pica – a condition that sees her crave plastic and chalk rather than food. Theirs is not a normal life. The house is run as a boarding house by their father Luc , though he finds it hard to keep his staff for long.

The story is not as straight forward as the blurb would have you believe. The world Oyeyemi creates tips and shifts so that clarity is not something you can be certain of. The narration is carried by several characters, including Miri, Eliot and Ore. There is also a third person narrator and another voice claiming to be the house itself.

It’s a dreamy book, big events are not dwelt upon and the mystery of the refugee stabbings is never resolved. Miranda is barely able to keep her own feet on the ground so it is no surprise to find that the narrative drifts and floats along with her.

But that does not make the book at all frustrating. There’s such a wealth of detail, of things to think about, the book forces you to engage. Is the house haunted or is it all Miranda’s imagination?

I also enjoyed the experimental form of the book. Oyeyemi refuses to be bound by the traditional methods:

“At least she is there, I’d thought, even if she is just a ghost and doesn’t speak at least she is

there

was a bird on the windowsill later in the afternoon.”

 

I didn’t feel that I got to know this family well at all. I couldn’t understand why Miri didn’t try to be healthy or what her feelings for Ore were. Eliot possibly twisted feelings for Miri are never really explored. Darker elements are left to trail through the narrative, all of which adds to the slightly sinister, unnatural atmosphere:

“[…] everyone thinks that twin brothers and sister grow up magnetized towards each other, the prince at the foots of Rapunzel’s tower before the tower is even built, the lover you can get at all the fucking time, the one who is you but a girl, or you but a boy, whose bed you know as well as your own. How could you endure that without falling in love? The question is, were they born in love with each other, these twins, or did it blossom? At any rate it’s already happened, the onlookers agree. It must have. Ask them when they fell. The brother and sister say no, no, it’s nothing like that, but what they mean is that they can’t remember when.”

The voice of the house – if we can believe that it is the house that is speaking to us – is the most chilling voice. People imagine houses, childhood homes, to be warm, safe and comforting. But this is a house that means you no good, that guards its family jealously, chasing off intruders, without actually seeming to care about the family. There is even the sense that the house does not particularly like the reader, there’s something snide about the way it addresses you:

“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.”

This is a fantastic book, ambitious, experimental and chilling. I would recommend it to anyone who fancies shivering for a reason other than cold this winter.

 

Picador, 2010. ISBN-10: 0330458159. 192pp.

Visit the website for more information and a trailer.

[Nikki loves an unreliable narrator, but is more straightforward herself on her blog The Possibility Engine]

3 comments on “White Is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

  1. Anne Brooke
    November 24, 2010

    Definitely sounds like one for my list, thank you! :)

  2. Trilby
    November 24, 2010

    And mine!

  3. Nikki
    November 24, 2010

    This is quite a jarring book if you’re coming to as I did, without realising how experimental its narrative was going to be. I started it on a train and remember the little jolt when I realised. But it’s so worth adjusting to! I hope you enjoy it.

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This entry was posted on November 24, 2010 by in Entries by Nikki and tagged , , , .

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Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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