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.