White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi (2009) E

Date read: 1.10.11
Book from: University library
Reviewer: Emera

Snow White meets haunted-house melodrama meets quasi-vampire story with a decided hint of “Carmilla,” by the author of The Icarus Girl? Count me in. White is for Witching is the story of a family, and a house, distorted by the loss of a mother and a hidden history of trauma, xenophobia, and insanity. Miranda Silver blames herself for her mother’s death, and struggles with pica, a disorder that compels her to eat chalk and plastic. (I thought it might well be a pun on the “consumptive” heroine, in addition to hinting at Miri’s eventual realization of even worse appetites, and reflecting the novel’s motifs of misdirected desire and destruction from the inside out.) Her twin brother Eliot and bottled-up father Luc are too paralyzed by their own obsessions and griefs to do more than watch Miri on her slow course to destruction. In short, every character is an emotional closed circuit, furiously retracing the same neuroses without outlet or resolution. This includes, of course, the possessive and apparently sentient house, which has born witness to several generations of tortured Silver women.

For the first half of the book, I read with mostly detached fascination. Everyone is so icily clever and dysfunctional that I couldn’t really care about them, and as in The Icarus Girl, Oyeyemi’s prose sometimes verges on mannered. Paragraphs drift into prose-poetic fragments, and overlapping phrases signal transitions between narrating characters; I found the latter a particularly heavy-handed stylistic device. Similarly, many of the haunted-house tableaux – Miri’s waking dreams of streets lined with “pale people,” for example – are presented with an arranged, glassy nightmarishness, an alienating hyper-aestheticization. What saved the book for me from feeling (if you’ll forgive the pun) too lifeless was Oyeyemi’s dense layering of Gothic and folkloric tropes.

The novel’s second half had me more engaged, as the pacing loosens up and gains momentum. Miri leaves home for Cambridge, and in this new context her terrifying isolation and vulnerability come clear. At this point Oyeyemi also ratchets up the suspense – something she’s exceedingly good at. The house reaches out to reclaim Miri, the last of the Silver women, and so the narrative is increasingly punctuated by jags of surreal horror: gesturing mannequins and poisoned apples, the apparition of a woman with one hand held over her face…

Miri also embarks on a headlong, clearly ill-fated affair* with a fellow student, an adopted Nigerian girl named Ore. I’m still not sure how I felt about this literal playing out of the black-and-white visual theme and undercurrents of racial and ethnic tension, but Ore stood by herself as a believable enough character that I was willing to buy into it.

I can’t go on for much longer without risking even more halfway spoilers, so I’ll just say that where the ending of The Icarus Girl left me explosively uncatharsis’d, I loved the ending of White is for Witching, though they’re comparably ambiguous. (and yes, I know that’s a very silly thing to state as if quantifiable.) White‘s ending is pained and uncertain, but there’s something tentatively hopeful about that uncertainty: it seems to suggest that the darkness is not absolute or final. Given how much all the characters in White wallow in wallowing, even a very tenuous, very ambiguous departure from stasis stands out as an extraordinary emotional movement. So for all its archness, White is for Witching left me thoughtful and troubled, and I’ve returned it to it numerous times since to reconsider its images and themes. Fans of Caitlin Kiernan, Shirley Jackson, and other authors of densely psychological fantasy/horror/ghost stories/whateveryouwanttocall it may find this well worth the read.

* Spoilerish alert – I was strongly reminded of this quote from “Carmilla,” although it doesn’t map exactly:

“The vampire is prone to be fascinated with an engrossing vehemence, resembling the passion of love, by particular persons. In pursuit of these it will exercise inexhaustible patience and stratagem, for access to a particular object may be obstructed in a hundred ways. It will never desist until it has satiated its passion, and drained the very life of its coveted victim. But it will, in these cases, husband and protract its murderous enjoyment with the refinement of an epicure, and heighten it by the gradual approaches of an artful courtship. In these cases it seems to yearn for something like sympathy and consent.”

Go to:
Helen Oyeyemi: bio and works reviewed
The Icarus Girl, by Helen Oyeyemi (2006) E
The Red Tree, by CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan (2009) E

8 thoughts on “White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi (2009) E”

  1. So interesting! I couldn’t help screaming Haunting of Hill House to myself as I read this.. especially the bit about the house reclaiming the women.

    I’m torn though. Is this my type of thing? This sounds like such a distressing read…

    Also, I love “wallow in wallowing”

    1. For sure, White is for Witching is very much aware of its literary ancestors, and I think it’s a metaphor that’s impossible to avoid in any haunted-house tale.

      I’m torn as well on whether to recommend this to you! Given that we reacted about identically to Icarus Girl, though, I’m tempted to say “yes.” (I’m guessing you’ll find Witching frustrating and rewarding in the same ways that I did…)

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