Sunday 21 February 2010

White is for Witching

You may remember that I was feeling all smug and public-service-using the other day, when I got White is for Witching out of the public library - my first public library book for about six years, I'd imagine. I *had* asked for it from Picador, but not heard from them for a few weeks, so off to the library I went... and, when I was halfway through the book, guess what came through the postbox? Thank you, Picador, I now own my very own copy. Sorry, library. But I did go and get another one out - Identity by Milan Kundera. Having decided not to read another Kundera for a while, I realised I was missing his writing, and that he'd written something nice and short...

Anyway. I was very impressed by The Icarus Girl - my first encounter with Helen Oyeyemi - back in August 2008. I was also a little sickened that she wrote it during her A Levels, got another novel out during her time studying at Cambridge, and now seems unstoppable. And then I read Eva's lovely review of White is for Witching, which (a) was very enthusiastic, and (b) mentioned Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle as a point of comparison. Yes, the very same novel which is in my 50 Books You Must Read list. I couldn't not read it, could I?

The novel follows Miranda, from her sixth-form to Cambridge - she has a twin brother [twinlit - check], has pica and thus eats chalk [quirky and original - check], and seems to be in tune with her dead ancestors and her very human house [weird houses - check]. All very Gothic and haunting. I'd love to explain more about the plot, and the characters, but I don't think I can... despite all those 'checks', I was disappointed by White is for Witching. Mostly because I hadn't got a clue what was going on.

I was a bit confused by the ending of The Icarus Girl, but I liked the ambiguity - the climax of Jessamy battling her double - but this seemed to seep through all of White is for Witching. Was this just me? Was it just because I was reading it while a bit tired, and later when I had a headache? Or did the novel give me a headache?

There are various narrators - Eliot, Miranda's twin brother; Ore, her friend and sometime-lover at Cambridge; a third-person narrator; the house; maybe her dead mother? But they were never announced. I was usually halfway through a narrative chunk before I'd identified the person who was speaking. It didn't help that I thought Eliot was a girl and Ore was a boy, when in fact it's the other way round. What I did like was that narratives would blur into each other, connected over a word that they both use, for example:

'I can only explain it in comparison to something mundane - my adjustment to Lily's ghost was sort of like when you're insanely thirsty, but for some reason you can't get the cap on your water bottle to open properly so you tussle at it with your teeth and hands until you can get a trickle of water to come through. A little water at a time, and you're trying to be less thirsty and more patient so that the water can be enough. The thing with having seen Lilly was just like that, a practical inner adjustment to meet a need. At least she is there, I'd thought, even if she is just a ghost and doesn't speak, at least she is
was a bird on the windowsill later in the afternoon. I looked up from Thus Spake Zarathustra and saw it sitting motionless. [etc.]'

But there was a little too much structural experiment for my liking - I love experimental writing, but doing it with the way words are laid out on the page always seems, somehow, like the laziest method.

And there are all sorts of unexplained things - or, at least, things I didn't find explained. The novel opens with Miranda disappearing completely, and tracks back to fin
d out why - which is deliberately not resolved. But what was the bizarre stabbing incident? Why does she not look like her old photographs? Why does she think she is dead? What was that bit about someone being kept in a walk-in closet for years? SO CONFUSED HEAD EXPLODING EYES POPPING OUT OF MY HEAD. Ahem.

I haven't read Oyeyemi's second novel yet, The Opposite House, but I'd be interested to see the progression. For me, White is for Witching took all the elements I really liked in The Icarus Girl, and then went too far with them.

I really wanted to like this novel, and so I'm waiting to be convinced... did I just read it in the wrong frame of mind? Or has Oyeyemi got too experimental for her boots?


  1. I haven't read this one yet (library hasn't got it), but The Opposite House is rather confusing, so I wasn't always sure what was happening in the B-plot. I am curious to see how she does the experimenting in White is for Witching - I thought The Opposite House was miles better written than The Icarus Girl, and I expected WifW to be better yet.

  2. Simon, I have a copy from the library but haven't read it so can't shed any light or perhaps agree with you yet. This is the second disappointed review I have read of this in last few days and both have said that the narrative is quite confusing so I'll approach it cautiously.

    I wasn't blown away by The Icarus Girl but I put that down to Oyeyemi's immaturity as a writer and did think she showed promise. I enjoy the supernatural elements that she included and associate this with Nigerian culture due to some of the Nigerian literature that I have read.

  3. Hi Claire - could you point me in the direction of the other review you'd read, I'd love to see it...

    Jenny - I'm glad The Opposite House is well written, I'll give it a try one day...

  4. Of course, Simon. Here you go:

  5. I just finished White Is For Witching myself. I have exactly the same reaction you did: I could only follow the broad strokes of what was going on. The details were confusing. You are not the only one.

  6. Wow, your post made me a little happy as I'm not the only one feeling that way after reading this book: White is For Witching was Helen's first book that I read and I love it even though it's confusing at certain points..well, it's not really confusing, but I guess it's something about the book and her writing that keeps me coming back to read and re-read it again and again. I've read it twice at the moment, and plan to read it again. but I just need to finish reading The Icarus Girl and The Opposite House first :) I just love her works lol


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