Friday, 16 April 2010

Book Review: White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi is only 25 years old and she has already published her third novel. The first novel The Icarus Girl, was published when Oyeyemi was a 20-year-old undergraduate at Cambridge. There years later, The Opposite House appeared and last year at the age of twenty four, the third one – White is for Witching was published. Oyeyemi’s first two novels are ghost stories and the third one is no different. I am not really a fan of ghost stories, but once in a while I like to remind myself of the time when I was seven and scared of the dark.

White is for Witching has various narrators. Miranda or Miri the protagonist who suffers from an eating disorder called pica is a narrator. Pica prevents Miri from eating food and encourages her to eat stuff like plastic and chalk. Miri’s twin brother Elliot is a narrator and so is Miri’s friend Ore. There is yet another narrator, an omniscient being who chose to remain mysterious. Is it the house itself that’s speaking to us? Possible. After all, the house at Dover which Miri’s mother inherited from her mother is bewitched and narration is something that could comes naturally to such a bewitched house. The narrators keep changing and that’s something which keeps a reader on the toes.

Helen Oyeyemi is a talented writer. Extremely talented. When Oyeyemi describes how Miri’s father Luc who has converted the Dover house into a B&B takes her out shopping for clothes, she says:

“Luc refused Miranda every dress that she tried on. Every time he shook his head, she gauged the extent of his dislike for the dress by checking whether he had raised one eyebrow or both.

‘What’s wrong with this one?’ she’d ask. Mid-length sleeves, a demure hemline, a keyhole collar.’

‘You know you already have one like that.’”

The sheer idea that Luc (who is an excellent cook) could be much more finicky about Miranda’s clothes than Miranda herself is extremely interesting, but Oyeyemi makes Luc appear to be natural. As if all father-daughter relationships are like that.

And then after Miranda finds a dress that Luc also likes, she says:

“It was 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.”

Miranda and Elliot’s mother Lily was killed in Haiti while on a reporting assignment there. Miranda and Elliot are sixteen when this happens. Since this is a ghost story, Miranda can sense her mother’s presence in the house even after her death. Before Lily’s death, Luc had turned the Dover house into a Bed & Breakfast, but servants don’t stay for long in the bewitched B&B. Miranda suffers a lot, especially after her mother’s death. Elliot can feel her pain and he tries to help, but he can’t do much. However, when Miranda goes to Cambridge, she meets Ore, a Nigerian girl who has been adopted by white parents. Ore and Miri form a bond and when Oyeyemi writes about this friendship, she is at her best.

And that brings me to the crux of the fault in this novel. In a nutshell, it is ‘over-engineered’. There is too much technique in it and too little story, too much beautiful prose, but not enough plain speaking. The ghosts (or presences) make very brief appearances. They are a few allusions to spirits, but even they are not too numerous. The narrators flip back and forth too often. When Oyeyemi talks of Miri’s friendship with Ore and Ore’s love and friendship for Miranda, she doesn’t use too much technique (may be because it is something she knows that terrain very well) and comes out with some readable stuff. Generally speaking, I like straightforward storytelling and Oyeyemi does anything but that.

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