White is for Witching (thoughts)
You’ve read Shirley Jackson, right? (If not, step away from your computer, gets your hands on the first copy you see of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and come back in a couple of hours.) You know how she does psychological, creepy horror so well….when disturbing things are hinted at, but the gore’s not all in your face? And you finish the book, and you’ve got more answers than questions, but you’re still satisfied? Well, I’d like to introduce you to Helen Oyeyemi, who writes as if Jackson was reincarnated into a young, Nigerian-Brit who went to Cambridge and enjoys tossing some experimental stuff into her fiction. I devoured her third novel, White is for Witching, yesterday, and I am so happy that my library has her earlier two as well.
Here’s what I knew before I started reading the book: there were twins in it. All the blurbs used the phrase ‘neo-gothic.’ And one of the twins had pica, which is some psychological disorder that makes you want to eat inedible things and not eat real food. That was totally enough for me to read the book, and I tell you that it lives up to all those blurbs, so if you want to go in completely blind, just stop reading, go grab the book, and come back once you’re done so we can gush together. ;) Not completely convinced? What if I add….it has fairy tales and folklore from Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. There are several narrators, and most of them are at least mildly unreliable. The novel is divided into main parts entitled “Curiouser” & “And Curiouser”. There’s a haunted house. It would totally work for the GLBT Challenge, as well as the African Diaspora one that I read it for. Don’t you want to just eat it up now?
For those of you who’d like to know a bit more about why I loved this book to death, I’ll go into further detail. ;) Nothing too spoiler-y, of course, but there were so many reasons why I loved it! First of all, I love it when there’s a narrator in the book who’s obviously insane, but doesn’t realise that they’re insane, and so you have to read between the lines. And in this case, not only has Oyeyemi pulled it off perfectly, but it’s not even a human narrator. The creepy, evil haunted house is one of the narrators! I cannot even begin to describe how awesome this is. I also really enjoyed the contemporary British setting; much of the book takes place in Dover, and then for awhile the action moves to Cambridge. And the twins are upper sixth formers when the novel starts, so the mix of totally creepy stuff with everyday British teenage life was great fun. Then there was the love of clothes that really run throughout the book…I don’t want to imply that even 10% of the story was about clothes, but just the little details and descriptions tossed in now and then delighted me. And there’s one scene when Miranda’s father takes her dress shopping…listen to this passage:
When she tried on the last dress in the pile he’d built up, she was sure he would like it. He had to. It didn’t look like anything she already had, the skirt flared wonderfully, and there was the sweet ribbon bow at the waist. It was a dress to be worn by the sort of girl who’d check that no one was looking, then skip down a quiet street instead of walking, just so the fun of it was hers alone.
Isn’t that just perfect? Later, Miranda sews a coat, and it had me itching to grab out my sewing machine again!
I think this book works so perfectly because Oyeyemi creates these very real, vivid characters, with day-to-day habits and tastes, the kind of people who remind you of your friends, or children, or whatever, and then mixes them in with the evil supernatural element. Now, there is a bit of an experimental edge to the book, especially in the very beginning and very end. But the vast majority of the book is straightforward storytelling, so if experimental stuff isn’t your thing, don’t get scared off. This isn’t Calvino or Danielewski by any stretch of the imagination. The first eight pages, which form a kind of preface that I had to go back and reread when the book was over, do feel a bit random; you’re immediately plunged into the story, and I had a couple ‘hmmm’ moments. So if you just do the sample online thing, keep in mind that most of the book isn’t written like that.
I could seriously go on and on about all the things I loved in the book: the inclusion of lesbians as if it’s no big deal (because it shouldn’t be), the little diversions into immigrant/refugee issues (which never felt heavy-handed), how wonderful all the supporting characters are, how genuinely terrifying I found the house, etc., etc. But in the end, I’d say you should go read it, and discover your own reasons for loving it. :)
Oh! I almost forgot! There’s this fun new feature going on at pages turned: The Reading Habits of Fictional Characters. It started out as one of SFP’s personal reading resolutions for the year, but so many people thought it was a clever idea, that now it’s a blogosphere project! I’ll be taking part, and in White is for Witching, there are regular bookish moments. Here are the three in which actual book titles are given:
There was a bird on the windowsill later in the afternoon. I looked up from Thus Spake Zarathustra and saw it standing motionless.
That was Eliot speaking…I read so much Nietzsche in my last couple years of high school, this made me giggle. :)
Miri, Eliot, and Luc watched TV and read in Luc’s room. Eliot lay under MIranda’s elbows, reading Mobdy-Dick while she used his back to prop up her collected works of Poe.
“What do you think of Poe?”
“He’s awful. He was obviously…what’s the term…’disappointed in love’ at some point. He probably never smied again. The pages are just bursting with his longing for women to suffer. If he ever met me, he’d probably punch me on the nose.”
“I think Poe’s quite good, actually. The whoel casual horror thing. Like someone standing next to you and screaming their head off and you asking them what the f*ck and them stopping for a moment to say ‘Oh you know, I’m just afraid of Death’ and then they keep on with the screaming.”
Pretty self-explanatory! It goes on longer, and is quite fun, but that’s enough of a taste. :)
I nodded and looked around. Her bookshelf was quite good-Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Perrault, Andersen, Le Fanu, Wilkie Collins, E.T.A. Hoffman. No Poe, which surprised me, considering the presence of the others.
A description of Miranda’s bookshelf. :)