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White is for Witching (thoughts)

January 14, 2010

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. :)

88 Comments leave one →
  1. January 14, 2010 1:14 pm

    Oh my goodness… what am I going to do with all of these books? I want to read them all and now this one. Adding it to my Goodreads list.

    • January 15, 2010 11:08 am

      I know-my TBR list overfloweth! I think of it like a pool, that I can dip into and find a book for any mood. That way I don’t feel obligated to red them all. :)

  2. J.S. Peyton permalink
    January 14, 2010 1:15 pm

    Eva, you had me at, “You’ve read Shirley Jackson, right?” Lol This book sounds wonderful. I’ve just placed a hold on this from my library. Can’t wait to read it! I have to admit that I also need to read a Shirley Jackson novel. *shamed face* I’ve read her short stories, but no novel. Maybe I could read that while I wait on “White is for Witching.” Would you forgive me, then? Lol.

    • January 15, 2010 11:08 am

      I really hope that you enjoy it! :) And I don’t need to forgive you for not having read Jackson-you need to forgive yourself! lol Her novels are so slim, it wouldn’t take long to read one. :)

  3. January 14, 2010 1:18 pm

    This sounds fantastic. I really need to get to The Icarus Girl, and I’m adding this one to my list. And (hanging my head in shame) I still haven’t read We Have Always Lived in the Castle…

    • January 15, 2010 11:16 am

      Well, since I lurved We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I don’t know what you’ll think of it! hehe But I’ll be looking for your review of The Icarus Girl. :)

  4. January 14, 2010 1:41 pm

    I would have wanted to read this book based on the cover alone (I think the first one you posted is really gorgeous), but the more I read, the more excited I became! I love novels that are quirky and weird (for instance, before you even defined it, I knew what pica was), but so often I feel like you get an interesting premise or something that’s odd, but then there isn’t much substance and I wind up disappointed. Knowing that you loved this so thoroughly certainly gives me hope! And while I didn’t love We Have Always Lived in the Castle as much as others have, I did really appreciate the way Jackson was able to develop suspense and create a very psychological novel. If Oyeyemi is a similar writer, I think we’re all in for a treat!

    • January 15, 2010 11:17 am

      I think I’m different, in that I loved Castle much more than Hill House, and most bloggers seem to have it the other way round!

    • January 18, 2010 10:00 am

      Does White is for Witching work for the GLBT because of its themes or because of the sexuality of the author? I picked up her first novel Icarus Girl the other day and it looks yummy.

  5. January 14, 2010 1:59 pm

    Wow, I am completely sold! This sounds amazing. (And thanks for the reminder that I still need to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle – somehow it’s eluded me thus far.)

    • January 15, 2010 11:17 am

      I hope you enjoy them both if/when you get to them! :)

  6. January 14, 2010 2:07 pm

    I LOVE Shirley Jackson so after reading the rest, I have already put this one on hold at my library and I am number 1 in the queue…YIPPEE!!!

    • January 15, 2010 11:18 am

      I hope you enjoy this one! It’s much younger and more experimental feeling. :)

  7. January 14, 2010 2:09 pm

    This reminded me to put We Have Always Lived in the Castle on my wishlist! I put this one on there, too. It sounds wonderful. And I ADORE unreliable narrators!

    • January 15, 2010 11:20 am

      Then you’ll enjoy this book! AND you have to read Castle for the narrator if nothing else!

  8. January 14, 2010 2:15 pm

    I just bought this book this weekend. I’m hoping it is as good as the buzz makes it out to be.

    • January 15, 2010 11:21 am

      I hadn’t known there was buzz about it; I stumbled upon it almost by accident! :)

      • October 18, 2010 10:08 pm

        I got around to reading White Is For Witching. I could not follow it. Who..?WHat..? What’s going on here? Those were my reactions.

  9. January 14, 2010 2:18 pm

    Well, this was already on my wish-list but you’ve convinced me to read it asap! I love Shirley Jackson, I love how interesting and original you have made Oyeyemi sound and I love how you have sold this book.

    • January 15, 2010 11:23 am

      Eek-I hope I didn’t oversell the book. Even though I loved it, I tried to point out that people who don’t like experimental stuff might not enjoy it as much. (I always get nervous when people read a book after I’ve gushed about it, lol.) Anyway, I’ll be looking for your review!

  10. January 14, 2010 2:18 pm

    I didn’t read all of your review because I want to read this with a fresh, unknowing mind. :) Just hearing that she is a reincarnation of Shirley Jackson is enough to put this at the top of my TBR pile!

  11. Olduvai permalink
    January 14, 2010 3:06 pm

    Dang! Why didn’t I read this post of yours before going to the library? Cos I think I spotted this book on the shelf, but didn’t even occur to me to pick it up. Oh well, next visit I’m heading straight for it.

    • January 15, 2010 11:27 am

      Which cover did it have? Either of those covers would have attracted me. ;) But I hope you get it and like it on your next library visit!

      • olduvai permalink
        January 15, 2010 11:34 am

        Hmmm, I didn’t even pick it up! I only saw the spine… sigh… next time!

  12. January 14, 2010 3:40 pm

    I loved this book too
    See my review here:

    • January 15, 2010 11:32 am

      Awesome! I’m off to read your review. :)

  13. January 14, 2010 4:33 pm

    I SO just added this one to my wishlist :)

  14. January 14, 2010 4:43 pm

    I’m so glad you liked this one because the copy I reserved at my library ages ago has just come in for me to read. :D Really looking forward to it now.

  15. January 14, 2010 6:25 pm

    OK, you’ve convinced me to look out for this book, Eva!!! Onto the to-buy-list it goes! :)

  16. January 14, 2010 6:28 pm

    These are great covers. I need to read We Have Always Lived in a Castle. Thanks Eva

    • January 15, 2010 12:09 pm

      Aren’t they beautiful? I couldn’t decide which I preferred, hehe, so I included them both!

  17. January 14, 2010 7:23 pm

    Okay, since my library doesn’t have Shirley Jackson I will have to be happy with this book. :)

    • January 15, 2010 12:09 pm

      Honestly! I’m surprised your library has this one, considering its apparent disdain for books I blog about. LOL

  18. January 14, 2010 8:00 pm

    I’m reading Shirley Jackson soon :) That way I could prepare myself for her uh, reincarnation :)

  19. lena permalink
    January 14, 2010 8:03 pm

    Okay. I have to have this. I know I’m funemployed and poor as crap. But this is perfect.

    • January 15, 2010 12:12 pm

      That’s what your library is for! hehe

  20. January 14, 2010 8:05 pm

    I haven’t read anything by Shirley Jackson. I am adding this to my list. I must agree to several comments here that this book sounds wonderful although I hope it’s not just because Eva is soo great at reviewing and expressing her understanding of the material that makes this book likable. Nonetheless, I will definitely give this a try. Thanks for the post Eve. I meant “Eva”.

    Oh and it’s funny the way J.S. commented, I thought of Jerry Maguire on the line “You had me at Hello…”

    • January 15, 2010 12:13 pm

      lol; well, I only gush about books I really love, so at least you know I’m being honest! :)

  21. January 14, 2010 8:29 pm

    Similar to Shirley Jackson? I’m in! I’ll be adding on this to my TBR!

    • January 15, 2010 12:13 pm

      I hope if you get to it you review it! :)

  22. January 14, 2010 8:49 pm

    I love the top cover! And the title and the unreliable narrator and the haunted house and British setting. This sounds amazing. I have to get it!

    • January 15, 2010 12:13 pm

      Yay-I think you’d really enjoy it Jenny. :)

  23. January 14, 2010 8:55 pm

    Eva! You make me want to read so many books that I haven’t even heard of, and then as soon as you review them I have to fight the impulse to go out and purchase them! It’s alternately awesome and horrible. But, thanks for this recommendation. I think I will now join the African Dispora Challenge. :) And also, read this book in the near future!

    • January 15, 2010 12:15 pm

      Well, now that you’re part of a new library system, you can just put them all on hold! LOL And you should definitely join the African Diaspora Challenge!

  24. January 15, 2010 2:12 am

    This was already on my library TBR list but now I need to get it sooner than later. :)

    • January 15, 2010 12:20 pm

      It was great fun! And short too, so a pretty quick read. :)

  25. January 15, 2010 5:27 am

    You need to read The Icarus Girl now too. That is brilliant.

    I haven’t read White is for Witching yet, but it is sitting in my library pile, patiently waiting its turn.

    • January 15, 2010 12:20 pm

      I definitely will be reading Icarus Girl next! :)

  26. January 15, 2010 7:02 am

    I don’t read ghost stories or Shirley Jackson, but maybe I will some day! Sounds right up there with the others.

    • January 15, 2010 12:21 pm

      If you ever do, definitely check out Oyeyemi! :)

  27. novelinsights permalink
    January 15, 2010 8:03 am

    Oooh! This sounds great. You’ve also made me want to read Shirley Jackson.

  28. January 15, 2010 10:26 am

    The cover is intriguing, and to follow the examples of others, you had me at:

    “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…”

    • January 15, 2010 12:22 pm

      Isn’t it marvelous when a character has a real love of clothes? :)

  29. January 15, 2010 3:07 pm

    I love Shirley Jackson. We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Hill House are amazing books! I’m adding this one to my list. :-)

    • January 16, 2010 5:52 pm

      Isn’t Jackson wonderful?! I hope you enjoy Oyeyemi too!

  30. January 16, 2010 9:59 pm

    Hurrah, Eva, I’m so glad you read this and enjoyed it. I was amazed at the originality of this novel, and having met Oyeyemi at a book expo a couple of years ago I was relieved to enjoy her book. She was such a nice person! I have her 2 earlier novels but haven’t read them yet, too bad, as I really liked this one. I read it for the most recent RIP Challenge and I’m glad that finally got me to pick up one of her books.

  31. January 17, 2010 10:58 pm

    yay!!! i’m so glad you liked this!!! i read this last october and LOVED it! pretty much for all the reasons you listed. i am looking forward to checking out her other books.

  32. January 20, 2010 8:52 pm

    Oh great review! I borrowed this from the library last fall but had to return it before I got the chance to read it. Now you make me want to get my hands on it again! I love that quote about the dress, it’s love, picture-perfect.

    • February 10, 2010 2:35 am

      I think you’d definitely enjoy it!

  33. January 30, 2010 6:00 am

    I just asked, on my blog, whether any one had read this, and a few people pointed me in the direction of your review – I must confess I stopped reading at the ‘if you want to read it blind, stop reading my review now’ section, because I was sold! In fact, I was sold when you mentioned We Have Always Lived in the Castle (I’m with you, I think it’s better than Hill House) – AND it’s got twins in it, which doubly sells it for me, as I love TwinLit(!)

    I don’t have a copy… but I think one of my 24 books for 2010 will have to be this one!

    • February 10, 2010 2:35 am

      I can’t wait to read your review Simon. :)

      • February 23, 2010 3:03 am

        Oh dear – I’ve reviewed it now, but I’m afraid I was utterly confused throughout!


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