No 398 White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi #ripxvi

In White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi uses the tropes of the ghost story and the Gothic haunted house to explore a more personal kind of horror – one that comes from within.

White is For Witching is set in Dover and is ostensibly about a pair of twins, Miranda and Eliot, who live in a bed-and-breakfast run by their father, Luc. Their mother Lily has recently been shot and killed while working as a photographer in Haiti and Miranda has had a mental breakdown and been institutionalised. Miranda suffers from a condition called pica, an eating disorder where she compulsively eats non-food items, in this case chalk, and her condition has worsened since her mother’s death.

In an attempt to get back to some kind of normality, Miranda makes attempts to eat better and applies to study at Cambridge, mainly because Eliot is also applying to Cambridge. Eliot doesn’t get in but Miranda does and she must now adapt to a new life at university while resisting the pull of her illness. Even harder to resist is the influence of her female ancestors and powerful pull of house that she has left behind.

Eschewing a conventional structure and fluidly moving between narrative voices, White is For Witching is a lyrical and unorthodox novel, with an unsettling – at times confusing – but always compelling atmosphere.  

One of the narrative voices is the Silver House itself. The building, passed down from the twin’s great-grandmother is an ‘ill-favoured’ place. It is full of strange nooks and hidden rooms and exerts a power over objects within, particularly the old lift.

I am here, reading with you. I am reading this over your shoulder. I make your home home. I’m the Braille on your wallpaper that only your fingers can read – I tell you where you are. Don’t turn to look at me. I am only tangible when you don’t look.

Guests don’t stay long, and neither to staff, driven away by an oppressive and consuming atmosphere. The building is hostile to outsiders, trapping people in its strange spaces, or bringing them to floors that shouldn’t exist. Only Miranda seems to recognise the spirits that linger within its walls, presences that include her mother Lily, her selfish grandmother who abandoned Lily at a young age and her GrandAnna, who has dabbled in witchcraft. He is conflicted between loyalty to these women who made her and a need to escape from the fate that befell them all.

This maternal haunting is both comforting and terrifying for Miranda, at times she  acts as a conduit for the its malign forces and at others she is little more than a victim of their cruel and destructive desires. Miranda hears and sees ghosts, but is this a true haunting, or just a symptom of her psychological turmoil and overwhelming grief?  Oyeyemi is smart enough to keep the novel open to interpretation and she indulges in a certain Jamesian ambiguity. ‘I miss her.’ Says Miranda of her mother. ‘So much that sometimes I’m scared I’ll bring her back.’ The possibility remains that Miranda might be haunting herself.

Two other more grounded voices tell the story of Miranda and the Silver House. Eliot, Miranda’s twin, finds his love for his sister challenged by her self-destructive behaviour, and blames himself for the depth of her grief. Ore is the girlfriend Miranda meets at Cambridge. She is black and adopted and also part of a familial history and heritage that she struggles to understand and it is her presence in Silver House that brings about the final, devastating denouement.

White is for Witching explores themes of possession, nourishment and grief through the recognisable tropes of the horror genre, through a languid and sinuous prose. It is a novel of atmosphere and mood, and its vacillation can at times be unsatisfying. Some characters, such as Miranda’s father Luc, never some alive on the page and a lot of plot is introduced but never developed. The events surrounding both Lily’s death in Haiti and Miranda’s original breakdown are glossed over, despite their central importance to the plot and the theme of what it means to be a refugee is developed throughout but never brought to fruition. The opening pages are so opaque that they really only make sense once the book has been finished and this lack of closure may frustrate some readers.

However, overall I enjoyed White is for Witching for Oyeyemi’s poetic lyricism and her striking yet subtle imagery. For me, this is the best type of horror story, where the horror may or may not come from within.


The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

12 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I’ve read a couple of Oyeyemi’s books – The Icarus Girl and Boy, Snow, Bird – and neither have really worked for me, although I agree that she is a skilful writer. I often find that there are themes or questions that feel under-explored, and I also don’t really get on with the more magical aspects of her writing. I agree that this one sounds reminiscent of The Icarus Girl.

    Liked by 1 person

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