White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

White is for Witching book cover
Rating 7.6/10
An interesting, involving and haunting piece of work.

At 24, Helen Oyeyemi is somewhat of a literary prodigy. Her previous works, The Icarus Girl (written when she was only 20) and The Opposite House did more than just get her noticed, introducing a bold new author with a unique style and confidence that set her apart from the rest. Unsurprisingly then, her third and newest book arrives accompanied by a certain degree of expectation.

Utilising familiar Oyeyemi themes – the female psyche, twins, questions of identity – White is for Witching proves a pleasantly evocative read, if not always a consistent one.

Oyeyemi's latest tells the story of Miranda, a teenage girl who's recently lost her mother and suffers from an acute eating disorder called pica, a condition which gives her an appetite for non-foods such as chalk and plastic cutlery. Much of the fascination with White is for Witching undoubtedly lies right here, in how Miranda deals with (and doesn't deal with) her condition. But this novel is no character study, as Miranda also has the ability to communicate with ghosts, giving the novel a supernatural and mysterious edge.

Having moved into her Grandmother's house with her brother Eliot and father Luca, Miranda communicates with the ghosts of her mother and grandmother that still haunt the house. The house itself is a possessive and frightening entity which is given voice by the author and plays a considerable role in establishing the unnerving atmosphere of the novel. When Luca turns the house into a bed and breakfast, the lodgers are systematically expelled by the building that scares away unwanted visitors.

It's an interesting but complex novel that takes more than a few chapters to get into, not least because of Oyeyemi's disarming style. Much of the opening pages will be indecipherable until further into the book, and getting even that far requires acute concentration. The story is told from several viewpoints (though they all share a similar style) and chronology is something hinted at rather than adhered to.

Miranda's brother Eliot and her university friend Ore work as more than just supporting characters, often competing with Miranda for centre stage. Eliot is an intriguing but elusive individual who remains at a distance, never quite revealing what you want to know. Ore is initially a somewhat straightforward addition, which, after spending so much time with the psychologically unstable Miranda provides a welcome change of pace. However, it's not long before Ore's character is unravelled and the book once again takes a turn for the alternative.

What stands out here however is the imbalance between Oyeyemi's dramatic narrative and the supernatural events that take place. On the whole, the haunted house and ghostly presences that disturb Miranda take a backseat to the protagonist's personal struggles. One almost wishes that this wasn't a fantasy book at all, as Miranda's own story and the characters that surround her make for involving enough prose as it is.

Yet there are moments of welcome terror that showcase the author's prowess with all things spooky, namely the sections of story narrated by the house. The confidence with which the building asserts its authority is chilling, a feeling that no amount of possessed mannequins, ghostly voices or unreliable lifts could conjure.

It's an uneasy read, both in style and subject matter and it's not until the end that either will be fully appreciated, but it's an interesting, involving and haunting piece of work that tells of greater things to come by an already impressive writer.

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