White is for Witching

This novel by Helen Oyeyemi opens with a series of questions: Where is Miranda? Is Miranda alive? What happened to Lily Silver? In turn, three different narrators—Ore, Eliot, and 29 Barton Road—answer these questions in their own peculiar ways.

Miranda, as it turns out, is a young woman who recently disappeared without a trace, and Lily Silver is her mother. Ore, Miranda’s friend; Eliot, Miranda’s brother; and 29 Barton Road, Miranda’s home, share the task of telling Miranda’s strange story. There are whiffs of madness and magic, and nothing seems quite right. Who to believe? What is real?

Teresa: For much of this book, I didn’t know what was going on—I didn’t even know enough to form a theory—but I was fascinated by the images: Miranda in the ground with apple in her throat, Miranda chewing a plastic spatula because of her pica, Lily’s stopped watch, the little girl standing in the corner of the lift in the middle of the night, and the house as narrator. And Oyeyemi’s writing is so vivid that every scene is crystal clear, even when the big picture is a mystery. I had to know what it all added up to.

Jenny: I played with a lot of theories, too. I ran into the idea of the soucouyant (a kind of vampire in Caribbean folklore) for the first time at a recent conference in Canada, and in this book she plays such different roles that I felt free to make my own assumptions. Is the vampire the house itself? Is it Miranda’s pica, a simple eating disorder? Is it the “goodlady”? Is it grief? What is slowly sucking the life from this family? Does the soucouyant actually do any good to the inhabitants of the house, if they play by her rules? I loved the fairy-tale aspects of this novel — and I find most original fairy tales to be rather unsettling, so that’s par for the course.

Teresa: I liked that there’s room for so many possibilities here, because I enjoy that kind of ambiguity. But even with the ambiguity everything that happened seemed to contribute to the larger picture, even if I couldn’t see how. (This is what sets White Is for Witching apart from the even more ambiguous There Is No Year, which I admired but felt more uncertain about because the images felt too random.)

The idea that my mind kept circling around had to do with family history and race. It seemed to me that Miranda was being kept sick by the past, which has literally come to life in the form of the house. I happened upon a review somewhere that referred to the house as xenophobic, and I thought that was a fascinating way of reading it. All the foreign characters are seen as a threat, and the house is “protecting” Miranda from them. The pica struck me as a sign of how unnatural and life-denying this attitude is. Instead of having an appetite for food that will nourish her and help her grow, Miranda craves chalk and plastic—a craving handed down from her family. And then there’s a way whiteness is depicted as threatening—the white chalk, the white apples, the “white cliffs of Dover.”

Jenny: I’m glad you brought that up, because I thought the treatment of race was really interesting, too. Even the names are significant. Silver, of course, and DuFresne means “ash,” essentially, as in ash-tree. Pale names. Then there are the “threats,” the dark-skinned characters, but it’s clear that they are not really threats, either to Miranda or to the house. In fact, it’s once again the house, the soucouyant, that is the threat. Ore (whose name in Yoruba means goodness, benevolence) is dealing with her own racial heritage, having been adopted and welcomed into a white family. And then there’s Tijana and her cousin. Who attacked her cousin? He describes his attacker as having weird red-and-white cigarettes, and the only person we see in the book having such cigarettes is Eliot’s girlfriend, but that’s not possible, is it? And then the cousin swallows bleach and dies. Another pale, pale death. I love the use of the apples as a way to stifle speech. Very fairy-tale.

The other element that twined with race, for me, was sexuality. All the main characters were dealing with the force of their own sexuality, even Miranda, who was so drained. The relationship between her and Ore derived some of its power from race, and I wondered, too, about the description of Lily’s death at the beginning, in Haiti: she is penetrated by bullets in a foreign, dark land. Sexuality and race seem inextricable, at least to the perspective of the house itself.

Teresa: Oh, that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about how sexuality figured in, but yes, I can see what you’re saying. Sex is also a life-giving force, and the house seems threatened by anything that brings life.

I wondered about the house’s focus on the women. All the ancestors who haunt the place are women, and all the servants and guests who seem troubled by the house are women. Eliot and Miranda are twins, but the house seems to leave Eliot alone, although there are a few signs that he, too, is affected. That leaves me skeptical about Eliot’s narration. We know the house can’t be trusted, and Ore seems straightforward and honest, but Eliot could go either way. Is he hiding something? If so, what?

Jenny: Oooh, good question. It’s implied toward the end that Eliot has not been truthful about being in Africa (another hint about travel to a foreign place the house might not appreciate), but has been watching over his sister in Cambridge, dogging her footsteps, taking photos. But watching, looking, is very close to witching in this book. The “looking people” in the house are not well-intentioned, and it’s the house’s close attention to each inhabitant that ensures its control.

And of course, if looking is witching, the very title tells us that white is for witching. In context, this means that the color white prepares you to take in all other colors, the way looking allows you to take in details that might otherwise go unnoticed (doors opening where they shouldn’t be, feasts made of food that isn’t food.) This assimilationist witchcraft, in which the whiteness of the house slowly sucks in and defeats the life of other forces, is the real, frightening, unsettling power behind the book.

What I wanted to know was — is it, or could it be, a happy ending? Is Miranda still somewhere, still fighting the soucouyant? Eliot still believes in her; Ore thinks she must be dead. Will she be able to spit out the winter apple and speak again? I loved the ambiguity, the slow twining and twinning of themes, and the uncertainty bound up in it. This was well worth reading.

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21 Responses to White is for Witching

  1. Iris says:

    I read the Icarus Girl by Oyeyemi last year and I remember feeling very confused about what was going on. I liked it, but I am not sure if I am ready yet to tackle another book by her. I guess at this moment, I prefer straightforward fiction. But definitely want to read this at some point.

    • Teresa says:

      I read The Icarus Girl a few years ago and don’t remember much except that I liked it enough to try Oyeyemi again. I think this one might have been more confusing to start.

      And I know what you mean about wanting straightforward fiction right now. I go through periods where that’s all I want too.

  2. amymckie says:

    Fantastic review of this book. I started it long ago and got distracted, and for some reason never went back to it. I really must soon!

  3. gaskella says:

    I’m afraid I was underwhelmed by this novel. I felt it couldn’t decide between Miri and the House as the main focus, and was confused because of this. There was some fantastic imagery, but the whole didn’t add up for me.

    • Teresa says:

      I know opinions on this have been mixed, and I can see how it wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea. It worked for me, though–I pretty much saw Miri and the house as the same story.

  4. Emily says:

    SUCH an intriguing review! This has been on my “books to watch out for” list for quite some time, but it just moved far closer to the top. I love all you had to say about the vivid images and commentary on race/sexuality. And the multiple narrators, possibly untrustworthy…it all sounds fantastic.

  5. Jenny says:

    I thought the book was marvelous even though, yeah, I often didn’t know what was going on. The image clusters were indeed beautiful and color-coordinated, and if a book is going to be spooky, I’d sort of rather not know exactly what’s going on. I cannot wait for whatever Helen Oyeyemi is going to write next.

    • Teresa says:

      I think yours was one of the reviews that made me want to definitely read this, and you make a good point about the ambiguity adding to the spookiness.

  6. Stefanie says:

    Oh, this sounds good. I’m putting it on my list for creepy fall reads.

  7. Anastasia says:

    One of my favorite “wtf is going on” type books! I especially like this review, too, because it touches on a lot of the underlying subjects going on in the book and I always find that interesting.

    Also, re: Eliot, for me that ending scene was sort of like a revelation, mirroring the beginning of the book with the house. Eliot is not actually what he seems, just like the house isn’t what it seems. Both are using Miranda for their own selfish purposes (consuming her, even), despite pretending that they’re only looking out for her. It’s sort of like Eliot is the human manifestation of the house, I guess?

    I’m not entirely sure what that means in the larger scope of things, but, er. Yeah.

    • Teresa says:

      Ooh, that’s such an interesting thought about Eliot. I’ll have to go back and read the last bit and see what I think. Eliot didn’t seem like much of a character as I was reading, but he gets more interesting as I think about him.

  8. Juxtabook says:

    As you know, I just could not get into this book at all. I am glad you enjoyed it though.

  9. Pingback: Sunday Caught My Interest « Reflections from the Hinterland

  10. Nic says:

    Excellent review – I particularly love the way you bring out the colours running through the various means by which characters die; that had completely passed me by when I read it. Such a good book (my review is here: http://evesalexandria.typepad.com/eves_alexandria/2011/01/smouldering-quietly.html ).

    I have a copy of her new novel, and can’t wait to read it!

    • Teresa says:

      I just found out yesterday that she has a new novel out! It will probably be a while before it makes its way over here, but I’ll be looking for it for sure.

  11. sakura says:

    I’ve heard so much about Oyeyemi but still haven’t tried her novels. This has been described as a ghost story in some places so I’m intrigued. Lovely discussion which has sparked my interest!

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